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Redefining value for universities

Have universities colluded in a systemic attack on the arts and humanities? Mark O'Thomas thinks so as he tries to redefine "value"
This article is more than 4 years old

Mark O'Thomas is Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Greenwich.

There is a scene in Willy Russell’s 1980 play Educating Rita when self-pitying academic Frank confronts working-class student Rita with the idea that the education he has so masterfully curated for her has all been in vain.

“Found a culture, have you, Rita?” self-pitying Frank asks the young hairdresser. “Found a different song to sing? No, you’ve found a different song to sing.” The question of educational value for Rita, however, lies in her newfound ability to articulate worlds and ideas she had formerly had no access to. She is voracious for knowledge for its own sake as new ideas edify her hitherto uninspiring and underwhelming life.

Were Rita to be a student in a British university in 2019, her thoughts and feelings on her studies would be regularly checked via module surveys and online feedback loops. The data of her electronic engagements with course materials and tutorials would be analysed and quantified by university departments specifically established for this task. And when she graduates and becomes a teaching assistant in a school because she needs a job and can no longer afford to be out of full-time work any longer, her graduate outcome data would help position her education as a complete failure, devoid of any true value.

She would be a graduate of a high-cost, low-value degree and had she studied Media Production or Graphic Design or Drama, well, she might as well not have bothered at all. There is no point it would seem, if current policy directives are to be believed, educating Rita or anyone like her unless she is interested in science and technology or indeed business. These disciplines are where the real graduate-earning potential lies and where student loans are most likely to be repaid.

TEF and value

One might have hoped that the Teaching Excellence Framework would have served as a counter to such narrow ideas where the material quality of teaching across the full range of disciplines would be both valued and heralded. The TEF, however, in its data touchpoints of graduate outcomes and student satisfaction surveys, has little to do with actual teaching quality itself. Ultimately, it is just another lengthy and expensive process that resurrects the cost/benefit axis in ways that distort notions of societal value.

Thus, a graduate of a Business degree at a high-ranked institution who deploys their studies into the City of London while working for a pensions company that seeks to provide misguided advice to pensioners is celebrated as having far greater value to society than, say, the Fine Art graduate who runs part-time painting workshops in care homes in order to support their living as an artist. The recent Augar review of higher education funding does nothing to rectify this notion of value and in fact serves to underscore and legislate for it further.

Terminal decline

Worse of all, however, has been the ways in which universities have become complicit in this reframing of the notion of value in recent years. While the government has been disappointed that the marketisation of higher education led to institutions almost universally charging the same flat tuition fee, in the cut-throat market for new students universities are jettisoning their arts and humanities programmes as fast as they can in an attempt to shore up their financial position as the hatches are battened down for the incoming post-Brexit recruitment nightmare.

Schools, of course, saw the decline and downgrading of the notion of ‘value’ first, which was always ideological. Teachers would trace it back to Michael Gove’s term of office as Education Secretary and his downgrading of arts subjects in schools leaving music, drama, art and even modern foreign languages as the sole domain for those who could afford private, after-school lessons.

For me, it has been very disappointing to have worked in higher education for so long and witnessed the almost wholescale collusion of universities into this systemic attack on the arts and humanities alongside the meteoric rise of STEM and the Business School phenomenon. Universities were happy to enjoy the embarrassment of riches that came with the introduction of student fees and constructed new business innovation centres, science parks and tech centres while schools and colleges suffered periods of prolonged austerity.

But now applicant numbers are declining, the students that had been deterred from studying arts at schools are no longer choosing to take arts and humanities degrees as they did before, and thus courses need to be cut. Did students stop valuing these disciplines or has their choice just become irretrievably limited in scope and ambition? The prospect now with so many universities abandoning what were once cores subjects such as Music and History is that we might soon need to rethink the word “university” itself to see if it is really fit for purpose.

Value for value’s sake

So, how might the notion of value be redefined for higher education institutions?

  • First, universities need to take a much stronger line in countering the received wisdom that attributes value to graduate outcomes particularly in the light of the Augar review.
  • Second, they need to engage policy makers in a sensible debate about knowledge production that does not simply endorse simplistic binaries between arts and sciences.
  • Third, universities need to be less risk-averse in interrogating ideas that engender internal divisions as is often evinced in the public statements emanating from the so-called “mission groups”.
  • And, lastly, they need to be able to articulate a new vision for educational value which is inclusive rather than exclusive, enabling rather than disabling, and celebratory rather than monetary.

Darren Henley’s excellent book The Arts Dividend opens up these ideas wonderfully but there remains much work to be done here further. Thus, it is universities rather than students who need to find a different song to sing before the only prospect for future Ritas is a degree apprenticeship in Hairdressing and Beauty while the remaining Franks are written off in a wave of voluntary redundancies.

3 responses to “Redefining value for universities

  1. Great article highlighting the responsibilities universities have to stop this arts and humanities battle!

  2. Not sure I understand what the second recommendation means: what does it mean to “engage policy makers in a sensible debate about knowledge production that does not simply endorse simplistic binaries between arts and sciences”? Genuine question.

  3. This is an important thread not to let go of, and my perception is that there’s support in the sector for the value or arts and humanities (though not without these tricky barriers you describe). It’s not just a challenge in the UK, but in the US too. This is a brilliant read by Professor Helen Vender making a similar case for thinking about how Harvard’s admissions team should consider arts and humanities students, beyond future financial value

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