In defence of the arts and humanities

Charlie Jeffery, the Vice Chancellor of the University of York, makes the case for arts and humanities as the seat of the UK's global strength.

Charlie Jeffery is Vice Chancellor and President of the University of York. 

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.

8 responses to “In defence of the arts and humanities

  1. It is an example of how far the discourse of University education in the UK has fallen that articles such as this need writing. Gavin Williamson eschews learning for learning’s sake and decries people exercising their democratic right to choose an education of their choice, for which they are paying handsomely. What nonsense. Of course Arts and Humanities are central to life, and these subjects should thrive alongside others. They generate knowledge of great use to science, as Jeffrey notes. I am reminded of wise words from Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel prize-winning scientist: “Scientists work in ways not unique to science. They require the historians eye for detail, the mathematicians feel for logic, and the philosopher’s desire (and skills I argue) to keep asking questions.” Enough said.

  2. I think it’s important that the ‘case for the defence’ also focuses on the ways in which the arts and humanities are intrinsically valuable, because they give us insights into what it means to be human, our creativities, behaviours, cultures, civilisation. The interface with STEM is valuable, and it’s great that there are humanities graduates who go on to have successful careers in the tech industry. Both are useful for demonstrating employability and contributing to the government’s economic agenda. But we need to avoid falling into the trap of accepting that UK higher education has to be conceived solely in terms of its national economic value – on its own I’m not sure this will ever be a convincing reason for supporting arts & humanities education.

  3. It’s also worth a look at the qualifications of the people who are so very critical of the Arts & Humanities. Gavin Williamson has a degree in Social Science. Looking at a few other conservative politicians recently involved in education, Michael Gove studied English, Jo Johnson read Modern History, Damian Hinds did PPE, as well as Michelle Donelan mentioned in the article. Presumably all of these people found some value in their own education and were able to have successful careers despite studying subjects of “lower value”. A cynic might conclude that some people think that the Arts & Humanities ought to be the exclusive preserve of the elite.

  4. Perhaps this government would prefer fewer future historians able to analyse and pass judgment on their activities.

  5. Defending the arts and humanities with reference to their utility in a market economy may be useful to a degree and may form an argument for self-preservation in times of crisis; but, overall, I think it risks doing more harm than good.

    Art, qua art, transcends mark value. The humanities, qua the humanities, transcends market value. So if we say good and valuable practice in the arts and humanities is nothing more than a function of instrumentalism then we have already lost the argument and shown our selves not to be worthy of championing the arts and humanities. We need better leadership in all areas: in government, in academia, and society. Please see my related article: “How we get what we value” for Wonkhe

  6. The value of the VC’s “defence” of the Arts & Humanities is proven by having led this reader to your ‘How we get what we value’ article. Maybe all is not lost, as long as the problems can be so wonderfully articulated. For the record, I study A&H subjects in order to encounter and make sense of what human beings have done, thought and created, and because I find this challenging and soul-nourishing. Can’t this defence be ‘sold’ to the tax-payer, without having to be hitched to the supposed carrot of workplace skills, increasing our ‘knowledge economy’, or going interdisciplinary with the cognitive ‘sciences’?!

  7. Thanks, Britt. I fear, however, that our leaders in the university sector think rather differently.

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