The art of staying hopeful

Although post-cuts upheavals loom, says Rick Rylance, we must believe that the humanities' strengths will endure

November 11, 2010

It is hard to predict where we will be after the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Browne Review are implemented. The implications are enormous, while the outcomes and interlocking ramifications are unknown.

There are some good things on offer: no slash-and-burn of the research base; a commitment to move quickly towards implementation; and, assuming it is sincere, the promise of consultation. Nonetheless, the proposals threaten major upheavals, and colleagues in the arts and humanities seem especially alarmed about future shock.

I've long puzzled over the apparent paradox that the success of the arts and humanities in recent decades has been matched by an anxious sense of fragility.

On the evidence of exponential growth in student numbers, an increase in research quality and volume and an acceleration in international reputation, there is a strong tale to be told about UK arts and humanities. The contribution made to the national economy by earnings from overseas students in these areas is about £1.6 billion annually. It exceeds the direct state spend on the disciplines and is a direct function of the reputation, quality, scale and variety that the UK offers.

Nonetheless, the feeling remains that this growth has been a bubble; that the arts and humanities' intellectual disposition is at odds with an instrumentalism sharpened by the economic crisis; that the value of our work is not readily accepted; and that aggregate growth conceals difficulties in areas such as modern languages.

Lord Browne has recommended that state spending on teaching in most disciplines in funding bands C and D should be withdrawn, unless a case can be made for support on strategic grounds. Those left without will include the arts and humanities.

There are at least two separate issues here. The first is an objection to the marketisation of education, on the grounds that any market is bound to favour the already advantaged, and that education is a public good for which the whole community should take responsibility. This obligation includes supporting the full range of disciplines.

But discussions of issues of principle tend to become stalemated. Proponents of public-good arguments come up against those who emphasise affordability. Those concerned about social access in a freer market are challenged that the current system is hardly a model of progressive inclusion.

Neither side is triumphant. Indeed, we have been caught in this same debate for some time. Although there is an argument about what modern universities are for, we continue to be creatively engaged in discovering what they could be. The work goes on, the successes accrue and the benefits are real. In this, the humanities, arts and social sciences have been crucial.

The second issue, of disregard for the value of certain disciplines, is more clear-cut. As David Willetts said recently: "The sheer inherent value of the intellectual activity that happens within our universities (is) the greater good."

That can only include the full range of activity. Any university provision that excludes the study of society's human, cultural and social dynamics will become rapidly impoverished. The study of these things has its own value; but it is also essential to the ways in which we address economic and social challenges, from climate change and community engagement to the impact of new technologies. It is also essential to the national economy: the cultural sector is worth 6 per cent of Britain's gross domestic product.

I don't think the humanities are heading for the emergency room. Adjustments in the system are inevitable, and we will have some turbulent times. But I have faith in a number of things.

First, that higher education brings major social, personal and economic benefits, and that this is perceived by an ever-increasing number of students.

Second, that the contribution of the arts and humanities is distinctive and that student demand will remain high.

Third, that colleagues in the arts and humanities are resourceful enough to refresh and sustain their disciplines.

And there's one other thing not to forget: without us, life will be more threadbare; ignorance will be greater; opportunities will be fewer; and recovery will be slower. That would be the real future shock.

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