The event, organised by the Spectator magazine and Brewin Dolphin investment consultants, took place in London’s Shaw Theatre on 4 March.
Former Apprentice contestant and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins argued that “we no longer have the luxury of the liberal arts”.
When it was announced that she was taking part in the debate, she told the audience, Nicholas Stern, president of the British Academy, had made a point of describing her as “utterly stupid”. Yet her advice to young people was: “Don’t follow your heart; follow jobs”. It was “mediaeval”, she added, that “we still teach students on university campuses”.
Julia Hobsbawm, founder of the networking business Editorial Intelligence, described the snobbery she had faced earlier in her career because she did not have an arts degree, suggesting that today’s “arts graduates are not moving into a market which can fully support them”.
Spectator columnist and contributing editor Harry Cole called his degree in social anthropology “an MA in sweet FA”. He had worked out that it had cost him £20 an hour “to be lectured by an incomprehensible Frenchman with a goatee” and wondered why “some [academic] subjects spend more time questioning if they are a subject than being a subject”. Could it really be right that “our universities are splitting at the seams with time-wasters like me”?
Arguing against the motion, entrepreneur Doug Richard declared that his opponents wanted to “reduce us all to vocational economic drones”, when in reality an arts degree was “a core opportunity to learn to think, be creative and innovate”.
Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, claimed the debate was really “about the future of humankind, of living life fully”.
Novelist Will Self, professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University, agreed that it was all about “spiritual values and nurturing the soul”. Politicians anxious about “unassimilable immigrants” should come to his classes to “see young women in hijabs discussing Spinoza’s religious philosophy”.
And those who believed that face-to-face contact no longer had a place in education should “start bringing up their kids on Skype”.