Outlets for creative thinking

July 24, 1998

"FREEWAY flyers" sounds romantic. It conjures up open roads, broad horizons, travelling to freedom. But Elaine Showalter is talking about something less appealing (page 14). In the United States only half the 8,000 students expected to earn PhDs in English and foreign languages between now and 2000 will swiftly find tenured academic jobs. Others will become freeway flyers and drive between part-time jobs on campuses hundreds of miles apart, or they will drop out of academic life, disillusioned and angry.

Humanities teaching in the US is in crisis. Greater opportunity, whereby 60 per cent of Americans go to university or college, means more humanities graduates, but not the money to match. Instead of hiring full-time staff to teach extra students, universities hire part-timers and low-paid graduate students.

The Modern Language Association of America, a voluntary organisation of scholars, has tried to stem the supply, but its only weapon is rhetoric. This can make MLA presidents like Showalter look enviously at their British colleagues. British students are just as free as Americans to take a PhD if they are willing to pay. Humanities PhDs find it just as tough as Americans to find proper academic jobs. Some even end up in the US, where British PhDs are "highly competitive". All start on short-term contracts. But the smaller British system seems to offer at least the possibility of managing the supply better.

Over the years it has become harder to win state funding for a humanities PhD at a British university. Whereas 20 years ago a research award could be had with a good second-class degree, even a first is not enough today. You need to be in the top third of first-class degrees to win a British Academy award. Those who fail this hurdle are effectively warned against aspiring to an academic career.

Now the government has announced the setting-up of an Arts and Humanities Research Board to build on the work of the academy's Humanities Research Board. This may prove the first step towards a research council for the arts, a development long overdue, although the board represents only England and Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales are outside its remit.

The new board, with Pounds 36 million to distribute for research grants and postgraduate awards in its first year, will want to consider questions of mismatch between supply and demand. Paul Langford (left), the board's chief executive, will no doubt note the US tale of woe. But he should not try to be too restrictive.

Manpower planning is a dodgy business and humanities people are creative. Who can say what new knowledge industries they may generate if they cannot get decent jobs pursuing their enthusiasm in universities? They may even get help from Lord Puttnam's new piggy bank, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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