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The value of higher education in the arts and humanities

"I want to advocate a truly liberal arts education. I want to argue 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"

Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), London
24 June 2009

Well thank you very much indeed, Lynne, for that kind introduction and for Geoff for being here and for the RSA for giving me this opportunity. And I always sort of begin moments like this feeling slightly peculiar because I feel like I’ve suddenly become very definitely a member of the establishment, which was the idea when I decided to run for Parliament in 2000. So I hope that what I can say can be a bit provocative and not feel too much inside the tent even though I am a Government Minister.

Two years ago, almost to the day, while I was Culture Minister, which was a role I really, really enjoyed very much indeed, I gave a speech at the Natural History Museum, and my subject then was how an understanding of science was being brought to a wider public not just through the efforts of scientists themselves but also through collaboration between scientists and the people who run our museums and galleries. And I argued then that this collaboration played a major part in allowing the great scientific questions of our day which influence everybody’s lives - and I’m thinking of climate change, of an aging population and chronic disease, or of the need for renewable energy - to form part of our national public discourse.

Today I want to pick up where I left off then, and in so doing I’m talking about education in the arts and humanities as an aspect of our higher education system that certainly is no less important than science or technology. I want to try and move beyond the sterility of the two cultures debate. I want instead 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 British identity in the 21st Century. That it is an indispensable component of the glue that holds the country together and without which we cannot truly flourish. In that sense I want to advocate a truly liberal arts education. I want to argue 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, and a reaffirmation for new generations of the roots of the expression ‘liberal arts’ to the classical notion that liberal education is what people need to be free citizens not slaves.  And I know that in advocating this synthesis I’m, of course, in distinguished company.

One well known academic told me the other day about the example of Birmingham University, which was founded by radical Joe Chamberlain in 1900 in a traditional manufacturing centre as an institution to feed the local economy by focusing on scientific and technological subjects. But almost the first thing that the University authorities did was to go out and appoint professors of history and music. The result more than a century later is an institution that still excels in both arts and the sciences. Many of you will have read the Guardian article about the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that the Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, wrote a couple of weeks ago, and in it he made a very similar synthesis to the one I’m talking about; he described the new Department’s mission as being to build Britain’s resources of skill, knowledge and creativity because, I quote, “these things drive our competitiveness both directly but also indirectly by reinforcing our cultural awareness, confidence and a sense of our past and our future.” And indeed, although this very institution tends to be known as the Royal Society of the Arts, I’m mindful that its full and proper title, as indicated behind me, is the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce.

Even for parents without experience of taking a degree, it doesn’t take too much imagination to produce a usefulness argument in favour of encouraging their children to take a scientific or technological subject. Even pure science holds out the prospect of a practical application one day. But for the arts and humanities the arguments are much more nuanced. It’s been said that the liberal arts teach the so-called soft skills that employers value; skills associated with how to think for yourself, how to research and find things out for yourself and how to communicate the results to other people, and there’s obviously a lot of truth in that. The AHRC went further in a report last week on the economic impact of arts and humanities research. They pointed to the economic impact of music, literature, conservation and heritage, human rights and much more. They make a key point; once our basis subsistent needs are satisfied as a society, the arts and humanities encompass those things that make life worth living. They also contribute to the level of civilisation that makes this country such an attractive place to live and work.

Clearly the quality of our cultural and artistic life in the UK helps to make us an attractive destination for global business investment. There’s no doubt that the need for graduate level skills, whether in the sciences or the social sciences, or the arts and humanities has risen over the years, and will rise further as our businesses increasingly try to compete in a high tech, high value market world. And despite our current economic difficulties, for most graduates a degree offers a more affluent future than they could otherwise have hoped for.

There’s also little doubt that arts and humanities graduates will be among the principal beneficiaries of the new industries and new jobs that will be created over the coming years. Even the most technological sectors don’t function on specialist knowledge alone, they also need managerial, communication and other skills in order to thrive, the sorts of skills that arts graduates can usually offer.

Let’s take the low carbon industry as an example. Besides requiring a management superstructure, their success will depend not just on the usefulness of the cost of the technology but also on an understanding of how the technology relates to people. And we’ve seen over the last few years too how important advocacy skills are in promoting public acceptance of the green side of the environmental debate. Something similar applies in other areas. Biosciences, already massively important to our economy and the sector’s still growing, but here too there are human issues that need to be understood, addressed and communicated, not least in the field of ethics. We must be clear that the jobs of the future won’t be created without the skills of arts and social science graduates as well as those of scientists and engineers. However, in my view, a degree shouldn’t be a passport solely to a job, it should also be the gateway to a different kind of life and a new perspective on the world around us.

Our university years help develop in many of us a sense of the importance of politics and political life, which could hardly be more important now. Less than six months after the United States elected its first black President, Britain voted a racist party into Government in Europe. We seem to be witnessing the rise of the politics of racial grievance, something is deeply wrong in our democracy. Politics has become too managerial, too unambitious, and is unable to address deeply felt grievances of cultural loss and injustice. And that’s especially true of people, and I was one of them, who grew up without a firm expectation of one day going to university, the angry young men of our society who are most susceptible to being seduced by gang culture or by religious extremism or by the inflammatory rhetoric of marginal political parties.  

The kind of social engagement and civic activism you learn about and experiment with at university are vital in changing our tarnished political culture. But for me twenty years ago, after I got into the School of Oriental and African Studies, the main value of all higher education lies not in what is taught then but what is learnt in the widest sense of that, whether the process is about opening minds, or indeed closing them, to things you thought before you got there.  And I have to say that many employers seem to take the same view; annual graduate recruitment rounds time and again, even in times like these, show that the flexibility good arts and humanities graduates learn make them highly sought after in the jobs market, notably in managerial positions.

Nevertheless, to base an argument about the value of the arts and humanities just on the fact that their graduates get jobs is to miss much that is really important.  For example, it’s been said that the arts are good for democracy in so far as they foster critical thinking and ability to debate. There’s truth in that too, of course, indeed. The dialectic approach to learning has been around in both the humanities and sciences ever since Socrates. It’s been said too that the arts are good for the economy, that our creative industries depend on them, which to a large extent they do, and that our creative industries are an increasingly important component of our overall economy, which they are. The export earnings they generated in 2006 were worth £16bn, which was well over 4% of the UK’s total exports.

It’s also been said finally that the arts and humanities foster community cohesion, and this is perhaps the most interesting justification. Some people claim, in my view rightly, that the ethos and skills of scholarly enquiry and debate, the belief that intellectual curiosity as well as the exposure of difference that university studies brings allow for what I sometimes call an ‘encounter culture’; it has values and is absolutely a counterweight to violent extremism or other forms of bigotry. Some indeed go further and point to the role of the arts in creating a sense of common culture, of a British culture that shifts and adapts over time but which nevertheless binds us all together. A culture that lives and breathes in us very day instead of gathering dust in an unused library. A culture that can accommodate both the great Walcotts, Clyde and Derek, as well as Shakespeare and Milton. A culture that universities can take out into the wider community, nut just through the graduates they produce and the book that their staff write, but through a whole range of outreach activities by giving public lectures and seminars, by showing films, by putting on plays and concerts and by organising exhibitions. Personally I find that a very seductive view. I don’t mean that culture depends on higher education, what I mean is that the arts and humanities in higher education are a powerful force for assimilating a disparate and often contradictory set of influences into that ever-changing thing that we call Britishness.

The spirit of constant challenge that universities ought to embody makes a different but no less essential point in preserving a healthy liberal democracy. When I discussed this with Nicholas Hytner, the Director of the National Theatre, he found a memorable phrase to describe this, he called it ‘a shared understanding of the inexpressible essentials to citizenship’, and I’m no doubt that universities play a major role in creating that shared sense of right and wrong and a common understanding of what distinguishes the just from the unjust. And not just that, but also creating that gives people the tools they need to question and what they’re told critically, and to make up their own minds on the basis of the evidence before them as they understand it.

Students of my generation were inspired to engage with politics by things like the Poll Tax, the initial police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder, the wrongful convictions of the Tottenham Three, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and the controversy of watching Gerry Adams’ lips move on the BBC while listening to an actor read his words. And causes are there, of course, for today’s young people. Iraq obviously springs to mind, as does the growth of the fascist rights in parts of northern England or environmentalism, or the cause of fair trade with the developing world. Without engagement our democracy would be in peril, and without the independent thinking that universities encourage there could be no engagement. That’s why there isn’t and never should be a national curriculum for higher education. But it’s also why universities have a responsibility to maintain the delicate balance between treating students as customers and treating them as citizens, between giving them the tools for employability and the tools for active participation in society.

In recent years universities have widened participation enormously. They’ve been at the forefront of developing many of the things that have changed our lives. We take for granted the worldwide web, universities in this country at the centre of that. Universities are cherished by their local and regional communities as a positive force not just for individual but for whole areas of our country.  But still the public does not understand the full scope of what our universities do. The case then that I as Minister have to take out into the general public, the case for the importance of universities is not completely won. Somehow the sum total doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. We still have work to do.

Until relatively recently higher education could be characterised in its broadest sense as an exclusive thing, as the door to a distinct culture and to a higher level of civilisation. And in a sense we are in transition to something more inclusive that occupies more of the country. We forget that there’s still a significant part of the country, people into their fifties, sixties, seventies, who actually think of university as a preserve for just 10% or 5% of the population, something to which the already well educated has access but to which the masses have not. In that sense a grounding in the liberal arts as it was understood in ancient Rome.

If we look back 150 years to the origins of public education, I think we find a much more universal acknowledgement that education should be both about social and economic prospects. It’s no coincidence that leaning flourished in working men’s and working women’s colleges where artisans could be inspired not just in their trades but in arts and culture, with teachers ranging from John Stewart Mill and Rosetti and Ruskin to EM Forster and Seamus Heaney. Likewise, higher education swelled with the rise of the trade union movement as working men and women came together to share not just ways of working but ideas, and we encouraged to learn for learning’s sake. This education was access to a common culture, a mass literacy which was beginning to grow and where there were new possibilities, indeed it’s that birth that gave birth to my political party. 

Today we should see higher education as being in the vanguard of social transformation through the advent of a more enlightened admissions policy and a greater emphasis on outreach, and we often present is primary purpose as being an offer as a passport to better prospects or to a better job. But we also learn to take a much broader and much more democratic view of what our shared culture is, and our understanding of the world is better as a result. CLR James was a Marxist but when he looked in Beyond a Boundary for the common thread that held the cultures of the West Indies together, he found it not in a shared history and common language, nor in economics and the social and political legacy of colonialism, but in cricket. Parts of our common culture, whether they’re our great canons and authors or indeed our cricket teams, may seem to remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but that disguises the fact that the context in which we see them, our core belief in what we are, the tribe to which we and our culture belong is always shifting because the past is something we see in the context of the present.

Think of the past decade. Over this short time we’ve seen changes in what we think of as Britishness almost as great as those that the 1960s brought. The impact of a global recession after so many years of prosperity is obviously at the front of many people’s minds right now but we’ve also seen other huge changes, like the change of perspective that the advent, if not unbroken peace, but at least massive demilitarisation in Northern Ireland has brought, and the start of a slow but necessary process of reconciliation between communities. And perhaps above all, we’ve all been changed by the shadow of terror. 9/11 was a watershed for the whole western world, and indeed for the Muslim world as well, 7/7 was a defining moment for our country. An old school friend of mine was killed on the London Underground that day, blown up by a black British suicide bomber.

And the repercussions of these events rumble on, and so far they’ve been both good and bad clearly. Bad in the way that many decent, law-abiding British Muslims feel as if they live under surveillance and suspicion, and bad in the way that playing on the threat of terror has helped the resurgence of the fascist right in some parts of our country, but good in that we’ve been made to think harder about what it means to be British and now about how our shared British values and a shared British culture have in common to all sections of our diverse community if they’re to have any meaning at all. The past decade has taught us both not just to get too comfortable and to live with hope that there’s much more that unites us, but there’s also a lesson in that for higher education just as much as for the rest of society.

Access to a single higher common culture is no longer an aspiration for millions of working people as it was at the end of the 19th Century, that concept of course has been dead and buried for decades. Since the 1960s we’ve come as a nation to distrust the idea of a canon of things that an intelligent person should know, and I think we’re all grateful for that. We no longer think that we can draw up a list of books by dead white men that everyone should read, or a reader’s digest list of the facts that everyone should know. Instead we’ve come to value the capacity for critical thought and synthesis. Neither the arts nor the sciences have a monopoly on these, indeed they’re things that tie the arts and sciences and our approach to hard and soft skills together.

As Einstein wrote, it’s not so very important for a person to learn facts for that he does not really need a college, he can learn them from books, the value of an education is a liberal arts college, is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks. And in my book, those are unanswerable arguments for upholding both the arts and the sciences while breaking down the walls between them. At present, and for entirely understandable reasons, we all tend to stress the economic arguments for higher education and the employment skills it confers, but it’s too easy to step from accepting the fact that viewing higher education is divided between the useful and what isn’t.

Most English Literature graduates do not end up needing to know anything about English Literature for their work. In economic terms it doesn’t matter whether they’ve read Hamlet or not. But at the same time, most physics graduates do not end up needing to know about physics for their work either. Again in purely economic terms, it doesn’t matter whether they’ve heard of the second law of thermodynamics or not. The eventual employers of most of them care more about their ability to work with people, to know when to lead and when to follow, to think critically and communicate clearly.  Last September Richard Lambert, the Director General of the CBI said this: “One of the great pluses of our universities is that we have a strong and diverse system. Some want to make your brain hurt and in others there’s a specific focus on skills. We think that soft skills are an important part of education, not necessarily for everybody but most people need to be able to get up in the morning.” 

And indeed Robert Whelan, the Director of Civitas wrote in the Daily Telegraph only last month, “At the heart of a liberal education is the notion that human beings are capable of moving from barbarism to civilisation by using their intellectual and moral capacities”, and that is an idea which ought to unite scientists and literary intellectuals alike. And arguments like those for a liberal approach to learning are one of the main things that have prompted me in a sense to give this speech.

So it’s not just within subjects that it’s healthy to see old divisions broken down as our world and our understanding of it becomes increasingly complex. The old boundaries between academic disciplines become less and less relevant. The straightforward 19th and 20th Century silos are not the places where really exciting ideas, frankly, are happening. In that sense I think we need to revert to where we started from; art and science were never originally seen as separate. What was valued was the way of thinking, the critical approach and the questioning found. And the sort of culture I want to promote is one that is broad enough to encompass more than just a book or a theorem, it’s broad enough to take account of the fact that in our world thought, art, science and technology must be open to each other if we’re to make the most of each of them. And this is such an important time for critical and synthetic thinking. We need more of our people to have, for example, the robust attitude to evidence and proof that physicists and philosophers alike learn, and we need many, many more people with the capacity for creativity that’s a distinguishing feature of excellence in any academic subject.

In many respects, universities are the ideal place for this interface to occur and, on that basis, we should seek new ways to encourage dialogue and interchange between disciplines. That’s possible with enough creativity and insight. The research councils have shown that through their support for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects that address the so-called grand challenges, and its approach that could be used more widely by funding bodies involving a process of scholarly exchange that could be facilitated much more intensively with universities themselves. Of course, the arts and humanities cannot contribute to interdisciplinary work unless they are strong in their own right, and I think it’s fair to say that the Government has tried hard to encourage higher education in the arts and humanities as part of an overall commitment to promoting excellence in higher education.

In the field of undergraduate teaching, the arts and humanities have been among the main beneficiaries from the overall rise in higher education participation that we’ve seen. Over the last five years for which we have figures, the number of new entrants to arts and humanities degree courses rose by no less than 18%. An important facet of that which we shouldn’t forget is the income earned from overseas students in the arts and humanities. There are about 80,000 of them here at present, and they make a direct contribution to about £1.3bn a year to our economy. In the five years since it was created, funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council has risen by 35%, and between this Government coming to power and the academic year just finished, HEFCE’s Quality Related Research Grant attributed to the arts and humanities rose by 86%.

So keeping subjects strong individually helps to ensure that they can make their full contribution in a wider context and, in terms of both research and teaching, the influence of the arts and humanities extends well beyond their narrow subject boundaries. If I just take one example; arts and humanities specialists have an indispensable contribution to make to delivering the vision that was set out a couple of weeks ago in Digital Britain, a vision that will depend not only on the best in technology but also on the best in design. That shows just how out of date the old shibboleths about subjects being more useful than others are. All subjects are useful economically, socially and in their own right, and increasingly in combination.

We should also remember that interdisciplinarity and multidiscplinarity aren’t just about research and its applications, it applies also to individual students’ experience of higher education. Even for the most career-orientated undergraduate, the university experience is about far more than studying one or two subjects up to a given level. Broadening the undergraduate curriculum to a greater or lesser extent after the US model was tried at a number of institutions from the 1960s onwards, it’s easy to advocate but a less easy thing to do successfully. And, quite rightly, it’s an area in which the law forbids Government Ministers from meddling.

But even a narrow degree curriculum doesn’t necessarily mean that the total undergraduate experience can’t be broad and varied, and I’m encouraged at the look that the sector is having in this area. And I’m not just talking about the Student Union bar but also about student drama and music societies, film clubs, bridge clubs, sports clubs, science clubs, political clubs, voluntary societies, foreign language societies, all of that that goes into a university, all of them enrich that graduate experience and many of them add to that extra dimension also in local communities that serve universities or that universities serve.

It’s open to university authorities and student unions to promote such cross-faculty activities at relatively little cost, and many do, but I’d like to see much more widespread acknowledgement of the value of extra-curricular activities improving the quality of the student experience. And we should also get smarter at spending the culture and intellectual riches that universities have at their disposal more widely throughout society. Museums and galleries in Britain over the last few years have been at the forefront of that for a very long time. I believe there’s more that higher education could learn from that part of our higher level skilled sector.

Yesterday I launched a new open learning innovation fund. It will offer up to £10m in matched funding to help universities and their partners to develop centres of excellence in delivering online learning. The fund will also help groups of institutions to pursue business opportunities develop greater expertise in online teaching and promote new approaches to online learning, including using open resource funding as part of an e-learning programme. I want the fund to help higher education make best use of ever greater pervasiveness, frankly, of the web and bring many, many more people into the possibilities that higher education can bring. That sort of new media experience has the potential to help universities extend their impact on our lives and on our culture dramatically, not necessarily by offering degrees online but by offering access to learning and knowledge in their widest sense, and again the British Library has been at the forefront of opening up the canons of our thought and thinking to a wider public not just in this country but across the world.

My defence then of the arts and humanities and their place in liberal arts education isn’t based mainly on their economic value or what prospects they can offer graduates, although both are substantial. The main importance of the liberal arts approach lies in the fact that it’s by its very essence democratic. It can’t exist without debate, contradiction, difference and the acceptance of difference, just as a health democratic society can’t exist without those things. It follows that the liberal arts are by their very essence pluralistic as well, they both reflect and help shape our modern society, and that’s why the arts and humanities are an essential component of the Academy. In teaching and research, and indeed in the amateur dramatics or the annual play put on in the German Department, they’re part of the glue that holds together a society which upholds the value of learning, not because it produces a profit but because learning’s better than ignorance.

A society that cherishes the pursuit of knowledge because knowledge is better than not knowing. A society whose culture is lived and breathed by its citizens because living and breathing is better than sitting in a mausoleum. A society in which, as if it were the high table of some ancient Cambridge College, science, technology and the arts sit side by side and talking, learning something new about themselves and each other are in process. A society in which the riches that higher education has to offer, cultural as well as vocational, escape from the campus and get themselves out into the workplace and into the streets. The sort of society that I want to live in, the sort of society I hope you want to live in too. The sort of society our policy makers and government and in the higher education sector owe it to all of us to preserve, to promote and to protect.

Thank you very much.

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