A leading critic of government higher education policy has launched a stinging attack on the University of Oxford, accusing it of being disingenuous in its arguments in favour of the humanities.
Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, attacked an Oxford report released in July showing that from 1960 to 1989, its humanities graduates had shifted from teaching to careers in finance, law and the media.
Such alumni had therefore “proven highly responsive to national economic needs”, argues Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact.
Professor Collini, speaking more generally about how the academy should put forward non-economic arguments in support of universities, quoted from the study and called it a “saddening illustration of how not to do it”, although he did not mention Oxford by name.
The report assumed that “if you make a quick killing in currency trading, then you obviously make more of a contribution than if you teach a child to read”, he said.
The report “risks a kind of bad faith”, he argued, because no one in the university will have been convinced that their humanities teaching was more worthwhile than they had previously thought owing to such arguments.
“This is in effect saying: ‘Yes, we know this is not the real justification for studying these subjects, but there are some people…who can only understand the question in these terms’,” Professor Collini said.
Those in government and business were already aware that Oxford humanities graduates had moved into finance, law and the media, he said.
“It is hard to know who exactly is supposed to believe that the statistics in such a report make a compelling case for the importance of the humanities,” he added – even the report’s authors themselves.
They were “pretending” to believe the findings so that they would be “looked on favourably” by those with public and private money, Professor Collini claimed, adding that the report represented “a loss of nerve and an exercise in condescension”. In the longer term, “those who live by the sword of contributing to economic growth will die by that sword”, he warned.
An Oxford spokesman stressed that teaching was the number one destination for graduates covered by the study.
“Our report shows that a humanities degree equips students for a range of careers and demonstrates to pupils in schools…that studying humanities…is not an obstacle to [their] choice of career,” he said.
Professor Collini was speaking in London on 15 October at the annual general meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. The CDBU, founded last November to fight the marketisation of the academy and defend “academic values”, has attracted 571 members so far, according to its annual report.
This was a “very paltry figure”, said Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the council and distinguished fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and those present were urged to help recruit more members.