Battle cry goes up for the arts

Philosopher asserts the value of the humanities in the face of cuts, writes Rebecca Attwood

October 28, 2010

A leading philosopher has urged the arts and humanities to "put up a fight" in the face of government cuts, arguing that it would be a "tragedy" to allow them to "wither away".

At the opening debate of the Inside Out festival in London on 25 October, Anthony Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, described the arts and humanities as "vital" and spoke of their profound value to society.

But cuts to the UK higher education budget mean that there are "going to be difficulties, especially for the arts and humanities. It is for them that a fight has to be put up in one way or another...I would be very sorry to see humanities departments vanishing or having to merge," he said.

Britain needs people who understand "what the great ideas have been in our society", he explained. "We don't want to have to keep on reinventing those wheels, confronting problems that have been perennial in human experience...without any sense of how people coped with these things in the past."

He added: "We need the arts and humanities so that people's lives can be enriched beyond their working commitments."

But he said that it was also true that "you are no good in the workplace" unless you have the "slightly larger imagination and greater breadth of insight into things" that is fostered by an arts and humanities education.

The event was also attended by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who was heckled by protesters against the cuts.

Mr Willetts argued that the government's plans were progressive and that the only other options would have been to cut the unit of resource to universities - which would have resulted in "a process of slow strangulation" - or to reduce student numbers.

Geoffrey Crossick, the new vice-chancellor of the University of London, warned that short-term crises must not be allowed to damage the long-term future of higher education.

"There is a sense of crisis - financial crisis, recession and public expenditure crisis. My real worry is that in responding to those immediate crises, as important as they are, we will take our eye off the longer-term higher education system that we are creating," Professor Crossick said.

He said his "great fear" was that in 10 years the country would emerge from the budget difficulties with a higher education system that was not "fit for purpose".

"I don't think universities should stay the same but...I'm not sure the government really has a plan for what it wants university education to be about in the future, it just knows about the problem it is trying to solve at the moment," he said.

Rick Rylance, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said the problems faced by society required interdisciplinary solutions.

"On the cuts issue, it seems to me that the mind shift we have to go through is to stop thinking about these things (funding higher education) as costs and start thinking about them as investments, because we are not going to get growth and a healthier society unless we invest in these things," he said.

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