Luton debacle summed up this strategic myopia

June 14, 2002

Cash and good planning are needed to bolster an undermined field, say Eric Evans and Jane Longmore.

A quiet note of optimism is, at last, apparent in the arts and humanities. This comes after two lean decades in which high-recruiting institutions saw massively underfunded surges in student numbers. Those less favoured faced death by a thousand "restructuring exercises" and the field became characterised by "excellence in poverty".

The public is regaining its appetite for these subjects. The events of September 11 illustrated once and for all that understanding cultural and linguistic diversity is vital to the future of world peace. A major benefit of an education in the arts and humanities, and especially languages, is the ability to mediate between cultures.

Despite a market-driven environment, university applicants have still been opting for traditional subjects. Curriculum 2000 has given a further boost: applications are rising again, by 12 per cent in history in 2001-02, and the quality of applicants in English, as measured in A-Level scores, has never been higher.

The economic value of an arts and humanities education is evident. More than 40 per cent of all graduate vacancies require a broad range of skills rather than grounding in a particular discipline. Arts and humanities graduates possess much-valued critical abilities, high levels of literacy and interpersonal skills. Language students have the lowest unemployment rate after graduation of any subject after medicine and law. The fastest-growing sector of the British economy, the creative industries, offers expanding opportunities to graduates of disciplines that foster creativity and imagination.

Government attitudes have begun to shift too. Amid last year's plethora of higher education reviews was a significant newcomer: the review of infrastructure needs for teaching and research in the arts and humanities. This marked an important change in ministerial thinking. The report recognised the systematic and damaging underfunding of provision for the arts and humanities over the past decade and stressed the urgent need for remedial investment.

With these early signs of renewed support, confidence has grown and subject associations have begun to form a more cohesive lobby for change. A History at the Universities Defence Group meeting of association representatives (speaking for more than 12,000 academic staff) at the beginning of the year had a dual purpose: to discuss common concerns and possible action, and to contribute to the infrastructural review.

Strong common ground was immediately evident. For example, the firm conviction that the "qualities of mind" of graduates in the arts and humanities are a valuable economic asset and a vital attribute of effective citizenship. The clear view also emerged that research funding requirements have been misperceived, partly as a consequence of an exclusive focus on the model of the "lonely scholar in the garret". The meeting recognised that the tide is beginning to turn and it welcomed the likely creation of an arts and humanities research council.

There were, however, no illusions. Setbacks were acknowledged - in particular, the bitter, underfunded, aftermath of the research assessment exercise. The potentially disastrous effects if the widening participation agenda is not adequately funded were also noted.

Above all, it was evident that a major weakness throughout the decade remained unresolved: weak strategic planning. Many university managements had been driven by short-termism and by their focus on financial rather than on academic considerations. Imaginative opportunities for cross-subsidy had been missed, leaving the arts and humanities even more under-funded and, in some cases, unviable. The closure of the history department at the University of Luton just before the announcement of its grade 4 epitomises such strategic myopia. Opportunities for cohesive action in pursuit of long-term strategic priorities have been lost.

Despite individual attempts to maintain the provision of modern languages at British universities, there has been no coordinated objection from senior managers to recent government proposals to make foreign languages an optional subject for pupils in English schools after age 14. The resource-needs report will inform the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. This is a pivotal moment offering a tantalising glimpse of a brighter future. Remedial investment and real strategic planning would assure that future.

Eric Evans, professor of social history at Lancaster University, and Jane Longmore, head of the school of humanities at the University of Greenwich, are co-convenors of the History at Universities Defence Group.

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