Is it time to defund the humanities?

As I have often pointed out, I am a big fan of much in the humanities but I don't see it as deserving of taxpayer subsidy

My own first degree was an Arts degree but I think the argument in favour of Humanities involvement in education is greatly over-egged. I am not at all sure that any arts and humanities courses should be publicly funded. There is very little evidence that they do any good. All we get are high flown assertions to that effect

I myself greatly enjoyed my studies of Homer, Thucydides, Chaucer, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Goethe, Wittgenstein, Schubert, Bach and Beethoven etc. and still do -- but I can't see that I needed to go to university to acquire that familiarity

Much of the cost of running our universities and other centres of higher education is borne by government, meaning the taxpayer. Therefore, to reciprocate, one of the main responsibilities of these institutions should be to produce graduates who meet the needs of society. This is not to suggest that we should exclude the ‘follow your dreams’ brigade from higher education. But funding, facilities and priority should be given to subjects that will contribute more to our national prosperity and societal requirements. These subjects would include engineering, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, physics and other sciences intended to improve our skill deficiencies, our industrial productivity and to encourage more entrepreneurs. To improve our public services, we need to expand training in medicine, dentistry, nursing, other healthcare professions as well as social work of different kinds.

The state should consider reducing university funding for the arts and humanities. Would our society suffer by having fewer graduates in English, history, geography, modern languages and other subjects, or would it prosper by redirecting that university funding to more beneficial subjects? Many readers will be enraged by that suggestion and I will be accused of being an intellectual philistine attempting another form of social engineering. On the contrary though, this is merely being pragmatic. As a nation, we should cut our cloth to suit our need.

A case in point is the cap on medical student places of 7,500 annually which has been static for almost a decade with the exception of A level grade inflation in 2020 and 2021. This number of training slots is totally inadequate for the needs of the NHS. To plug the gap, the General Medical Council registered 53,296 doctors from abroad between 2016 and 2021. The cap exists because of the costs of training doctors. There is no additional funding available but that could change if places for less essential subjects were reduced.

It is not to insult the humanities or other subjects to point out the problem we have in this country with ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees. The term was even expressed by Margaret Hodge when Minister of State for Universities in the Tony Blair Labour government. She described it as ‘a degree where the content is not as rigorous as one would expect and where the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market.’ That was 20 years ago and priorities have not changed. If anything more non-academic modules have been introduced.

Dame Margaret’s comment would have annoyed her boss who in 1999 had expressed a target of 50 per cent of school leavers going to university, a target recently increased to 70 per cent by the Tony Blair Foundation. That ambition would guarantee the creation of more unsuitable subjects especially for less able students who would be laden with debt from tuition fees. Why does Tony Blair not listen to his son Euan and voices from industry who advocate more apprenticeships?

By reducing funding for the humanities, students would begin to not think of university life as a goal in itself or as being a means of finding independence and liberation from parental influences. Instead the primary consideration would be the utility of their subject. There are of course, exceptions to this rule at the moment. The brightest students from the best universities studying the most esoteric subject may effortlessly move into finance, management consultancy or the law. There will also be scientists who fail in the job market. But it is the average student from the average university gaining the average BA degree who will have the most difficulty finding relevant employment. It is for them that this article is written. They should not suffer because of misguided career advice and a flawed state university funding policy.

The problem may be self-limiting as universities push for tuition fees to be increased closer to the £24,000 per year paid by foreign students. Prospective university students whose chosen subject has little relevance to the job market may be reluctant to take the excessive debt gamble. A glance at tables linking degrees to graduate entry salaries or to the chances of getting a job with that degree would be a wise move for most young people.

Part of the problem is that the decision on approximate career paths must be taken while selecting A level subjects. That is how we have arranged our higher education. At that age, students may be more attracted to softer subjects in preference to the greater discipline and demands of science subjects. That truth delegates greater responsibility to schools and to realistic career advice. Schools have the responsibility to guide students to good jobs.

I’m not suggesting that schools should indoctrinate students into science subjects but the advantages, importance and greater challenges of the broad range of studies defined by the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) should be explained. Science and mathematics teachers could be encouraged to make the case to counterbalance the preference some pupils at that age have for softer subjects. They could be paid more than other teachers given the greater relevance of their subjects. And the state should itself reduce funding and therefore the number of humanity places available so that only the most rigorous and successful courses continue.

Science and technology look forward to a progressive future while English and history look back into the past and at best, attempt reinterpretation and revision. These subjects can be learnt alongside STEM subjects. And in my experience, many scientists are also hungry culture vultures – there’s no reason students can’t enjoy the arts outside of a university degree.

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