The crucial role of liberal arts in higher education is being lost in universities worldwide, according to the vice-chancellor behind a new global network of colleges.
Christina Slade, head of Bath Spa University, said that global discussion about universities “privileges the hard sciences” while the identity of liberal arts is being “downplayed”. She added that the UK government’s interest in vocational areas of study was also putting pressure on the field.
Professor Slade was speaking at the launch last week at Bath Spa of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts, a new network that brings together 16 universities around the world that offer liberal arts programmes.
Institutions in the network will work on joint teaching programmes, develop collaborative research and, it is hoped, offer opportunities for staff and students to move between them.
Such a network was needed to help develop new thinking and models of collaboration in the liberal arts, Professor Slade said. “I don’t think we can survive without being international,” she added.
“The liberal arts colleges have been under enormous pressure in the US because people say they are expensive and don’t really pay off in terms of jobs,” she told Times Higher Education at the event on 5 June.
While acknowledging the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which have attracted “enormous” attention in higher education, Professor Slade explained that the liberal arts also had much to offer.
“We are never going to solve the problems in Syria with bigger guns. We are only going to solve those sorts of problems by using the resources that we have in history and, maybe, psychology,” she added.
Elizabeth Coleman, director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College in the US, said that the liberal arts were “under pressure everywhere” and added that the “deeper problem” was the lack of “a language of objectives that is adequate to our responsibilities”.
“When [economic advantage] is treated as…the objective of an education rather than the outcome of a good education, I think we’re in serious trouble,” she said.
The network includes the European universities of Parma, Stockholm and Utrecht, as well as several North American colleges and institutions in South America, Australia and China.
Carol Long, interim president of one member institution, the State University of New York at Geneseo, said: “If we don’t get with it and change the way that we go about education for our 21st-century students, then a lot of us won’t be around in another 40 years.”
She added: “We need to be thinking globally and developing cultural competence…Our students, they are eager to work globally but they don’t always have the tools to do so.”
Susan Carson, senior lecturer in creative writing at the Queensland University of Technology, which is also a member of the network, said that the Australian government is “giving us imperatives about internationalisation, and international links and research, and so we have got to respond”.