The recent shift in government funding allocations towards STEM-based subjects in higher education teaching funding is a significant development.
It undoubtedly brings many positives, but it also raises some worrying issues around the understanding of the value of arts and humanities subjects.
Choice and transferability
Universities are continually asked by parents and prospective students about the value of an arts-based education. Now that the government appears to be doing the same, we have an even bigger challenge in demonstrating how important it is that these subjects are represented.
It is universally acknowledged by employers that arts-based subjects provide graduates with a range of highly valuable and transferable skills, which are likely to become even more important as technology, automation, and artificial intelligence start to further reshape more traditional professions.
We also need to remember that STEM disciplines are embedded in many arts and humanities subjects – which is certainly the case here at the University of York. The strength of the creative industries in the UK increasingly derives from the interface between STEM and the creativity nurtured in the traditional arts and humanities.
For example, we have archaeologists working with SMEs on the production of new immersive and interactive technologies, to develop innovative ways of storytelling and inform urban regeneration projects. In history, we have research providing insights into the medical profession on the long-term impacts of reconstructive surgery, as well as work on medieval manuscripts in collaboration with neuroscientists and electronic engineers to better understand degenerative disease.
Learning between disciplines
This type of creative thinking is only achieved through strong interdisciplinary collaboration and understanding; and our students need to learn from people who drive these kinds of innovative interactions.
According to the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2020, employers see critical thinking and analysis, as well as problem-solving and skills in self-management, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility as the most important skills in employees – skills nurtured across arts and humanities degree programmes.
However, it seems that the Westminster government’s agenda is to shift what remains of public funding for tuition to more technical provision. Gavin Williamson recently said
We have to end the focus on qualifications for qualifications sake … we need a much stronger alignment with the economic and societal needs of the nation.
This is chilling – and it demonstrates a lack of understanding for how arts and humanities degrees operate, and of the kinds of people who have obtained these degrees and then gone on to revolutionise practices and thinking that have improved people’s lives around the world.
Arts and humanities lead the world
Sarah Wojcicki, one of the most powerful women in the digital world (who was instrumental in the birth of Google and is the current CEO of YouTube), has a history and literature degree. Stewart Butterfield, the founder of the communications channel Slack, is a philosophy graduate. Will Dixon, Head of Future Networks & Technology at the World Economic Forum, is a York history graduate. And Michelle Donelan, Minister of State of Universities is a York History and Politics graduate.
Linking science and technology with humanities and creativity is what makes the UK’s creative industries so strong – if we want a “global Britain” this is one of the fields where we have a comparative advantage. We need to build on this interface – not pull it apart – and in doing so we can create a stronger platform from which to achieve our ambition of being a global technology superpower.