By Dr Adrian Smith
The present government places the needs of the economy at the heart of its plans for the future of higher education. Why therefore withdraw all public funding from undergraduate tuition in the social sciences, and the arts and humanities? The partial reprieve given to the Arts Council’s annual budget reflects a reluctant admission within the Treasury that year on year the creative arts make a significant contribution to our national earning power. So why deny the need for investment in the next generation of Hytners, Halls, and Hirsts?
The evangelical free marketeer insists the exceptional artist will always emerge; but the Billy Elliots of this world will be making a massive leap of faith when urged to fulfil their talent. At least young dancers, divas and designers have a clear idea what they want to do with their lives. The Browne Review assumes that all seventeen year olds are capable of making informed and rational decisions re their future careers: did no-one on the committee draw on past experience of market-driven universities acting on such a flawed assumption? The ranks of the graduate unemployed remain swelled by TV-inspired forensic scientists. No imminent shortage in the mortuaries perhaps, but other key areas of the NHS will undoubtedly suffer if the future of key social sciences depends largely upon late adolescent whim – statistics isn’t the sexiest of subjects, so anticipate a shortage of epidemiologists some time in the next decade. The centrality of social science subjects to both the public and private sector is all too often forgotten, with lazy journalists perpetuating a hackneyed myth of turgid theory and redundant research. Wealth generators, not least the financial services, depend upon a regular supply of trained social scientists; complemented by a whole host of humanities graduates, each drawing upon a range of transferable skills honed in the course of his or her university studies. There is already a dearth of postgraduate economists, as the Treasury ruefully acknowledges. So, if come 2020 BP bemoans the lack of home-grown, number-crunching strategists then they know who to blame – their former chief executive. The wider social benefits of studying humanities and social science subjects at university are indisputable, and they generate tangible financial benefits for the state: higher incomes, standard of living, and quality of life together mean less pressure upon public health and welfare provision. More contentious is the claim that all science-orientated disciplines make a significantly greater contribution to national wealth and well-being than non-STEM subjects. Recent research calls into question the validity of key policy decisions based upon such a crudely quantified assumption. Clearly we need the historians to draw upon past experience in order to test whether technology was and is the predominant economic driver, the statisticians to analyse all relevant data, the economists to determine future trends, and the sociologists and political scientists to explore the wider implications of assuming invention and enterprise are synonymous. Yet these are all graduates in disciplines which in the eyes of the minister – himself a social scientist with an impressive track record in private industry – are no longer deserving of state support. As a now neutered Dr Cable repeatedly warned us in the course of the election, relying on market forces to determine the United Kingdom’s place and potency in the global economy of the mid-21st century makes no sense whatsoever. In strategic terms, it’s economic madness; and neutering the nation’s universities signals the triumph of short-term expediency at the expense of strategic investment in a well-educated, world-class workforce – a genuinely diverse body of enlightened graduates, all rightly dismissive of any damaging and outmoded arts/science distinction.