Welcome words, but scholars want action

David Lammy praises the humanities, but sector wants more than rhetoric, writes Rebecca Attwood

July 2, 2009

One commentator said it was "the speech we've all been waiting for": an exposition of the importance of the arts and humanities by the Higher Education Minister.

But while David Lammy won praise for making the case for the disciplines' importance, academics have warned that unless it is accompanied by changes on the ground, it will be seen as nothing more than political spin.

In a speech to the Royal Society of Arts last week, Mr Lammy argued in favour of "a modern take on the broad medieval conception of higher learning, in which the study of language or music should sit happily side by side with the study of maths or science".

He stressed how the arts and humanities foster critical thinking and debate, and emphasised their importance to community cohesion, culture and the creative industries.

"I want to affirm the fact that education in the arts and humanities, no less than in the sciences, is among the main factors that defines British culture and identity in the 21st century ... it is an indispensable component of the glue that holds the country together, without which we cannot truly flourish," he said.

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said Mr Lammy had delivered the speech he had been "waiting to hear", and members of Times Higher Education's reader panel agreed.

Efrat Tseelon, chair in fashion theory at the University of Leeds, said: "It is indeed a welcome speech for a society that is fast losing its soul on the altar of economic targets and other 'managerial-output' speak, that is intent on wrecking the fine intellectual tradition it used to have in the academic sector before the onslaught of the corporate model.

"But - and it's a big but - if it is not accompanied by big changes on the ground, it will remain just a piece of political spin."

Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University, said: "While I am always delighted to hear ministers praise the importance of the arts and humanities, I am sceptical about how this will all come out in the wash."

He questioned why the Government had protected science and technology in the last research assessment exercise at the expense of research in the arts and humanities. "It is one thing to praise, but quite another to fund," he said.

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, agreed that researchers in the fields would "still have their work cut out" in the search for more funding.

David Coombe, director of research services at the University of Kent, doubted that the speech would mark "a turning point" in the Government's preoccupation with the economic impact of research. "The community will not rest any more comfortably until Mr Lammy - and more importantly, Lord Mandelson - acknowledge the arguments made by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in its recent report, Leading the World: The Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research," he said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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