In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again

Last week thousands of students and academics marched on parliament to protest against sweeping changes to higher education funding. The coalition government has announced an astonishing 80 per cent cut in public funding for higher education. As a result, fees will treble to £9,000 per year. Students will foot the bill as government withdraws.

David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham; he is a former Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property and is a former Minister for Culture

Last week thousands of students and academics marched on parliament to protest against sweeping changes to higher education funding. The coalition government has announced an astonishing 80 per cent cut in public funding for higher education. As a result, fees will treble to £9,000 per year. Students will foot the bill as government withdraws.

Unsurprisingly, no one is happy with a deal that increases fees for students but not funding for universities. If that were all, the government could probably ride out a rough period, even with the prime minister telling students on a visit to China that they will pay less because their British counterparts will pay more. But it is not.

These reforms are not just a hike in the cost of university, they are an unprecedented attack on the liberal arts in higher education. Some of this country’s greatest institutions, from the London School of Economics to SOAS, will effectively be privatised.

Whilst departments teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) subjects have the capacity to secure sponsorship from industry, arts subjects do not have such connections. The result is that when the teaching grant cuts are cut, it will be the liberal arts that suffer.

If George Orwell or Adam Smith applied to university today, they would be told to pay their own way. David Cameron (PPE), George Osborne (History) and Nick Clegg (Social Anthropology) might also reflect on whether their own education deserved public subsidy.

There is the view that the eternal human need for knowledge and self-expression will be enough to sustain demand. But the truth is that the certain subjects will become the preserve of a small elite whose exposure to the arts reflects their upbringing rather than their interests of aptitudes. This concern may not register in a government with 22 millionaires sitting around the cabinet table, but already those from poorer backgrounds are less likely than middle class students to study arts and humanities.

Students will no longer ask themselves which subjects they are passionate about, or which skills they want to acquire. The only question will be a depressing, utilitarian one: which courses are worth taking all the debt on for?

The rationale for the changes is framed in economic terms, but even this belies the nature of work in the modern world. Google doesn’t just employ physics graduates. It also needs people to work in marketing, communications, legal, managerial and human resources roles.

To address problems like climate change, we need scientists to determine the impact of carbon emissions, but also economists and social psychologists to help establish what really drives more environmentally-friendly lifestyles.

Above all these reforms beg wider questions about the kind of society we want to live in which go beyond material wealth or inequality. The presence of liberal arts in higher education provides a voice of sanity, of cultural analysis and resistance that business and science do not. The very fact that it does not attract corporate sponsorship makes its presence in the academy an increasingly important counterweight to the inroads of big business in every part of society.

If university is where the boundaries of knowledge, analysis and creativity are stretched, then Britain will become decidedly lopsided if S.T.E.M. subjects forge ahead whilst liberal arts subjects are left underdeveloped. The arts are not all pretty rhymes and sunsets, but rife with philosophical, social, historical and economic insights about the modern, complex societies we live in.

In a global age these things matter. The strength of work produced in British writing, performing arts, visual arts and architecture is universally recognised and envied. Forget Trident, the arts are the one thing which allows Britain to punch above its weight on the world stage. Despite this, we may become the only major Western democracy to withdraw public funding for the arts and humanities. In the US, France, Germany and across Scandinavia the government pays its fair share. Britain will now stand alone.

In the name of austerity the government is undercutting one of the central planks of British culture and British identity. It is an historic constitutional decision and it is a mistake. The government must think again.

40 Responses to “In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again”

  1. Paul Seery

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  2. Shamik Das

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  3. Phil BC

    RT @leftfootfwd In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy << Good piece

  4. Jim Melly

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy >>what he said

  5. emma wilcox

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  6. Angela Pateman

    EXCELLENT do read RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  7. Pier Barrett

    RT @shamikdas: RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  8. catherine buca

    RT @averyps: RT @leftfootfwd In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy & …

  9. ross reid

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  10. Will Straw

    Great piece from @DavidLammy on @leftfootfwd: "The Gov is undercutting one of the central planks of British culture" //bit.ly/duwMv7

  11. Simon Lowe

    Excellent article. Spot on too. The university education of our future leaders and entreprenuers should be seen as an investment in our future success and the state should pay for it as these people will be paying higher taxes for the next 40 years. It is in our nations best interests.

  12. David Lammy

    bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  13. Andy Bean

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  14. Christian DeFeo

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  15. Chris Wright

    “Google doesn’t just employ physics graduates. It also needs people to work in marketing, communications, legal, managerial and human resources roles”

    So people who want such jobs will still do humanities degrees. And pay for them only if they earn a very decent salary.

    By the way, Orwell didn’t go to university.

  16. James Redfearn

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  17. Jon H

    In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again //bit.ly/duwMv7 – superb post by @DavidLammy

  18. socialworkuk

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  19. LLAS Subject Centre

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  20. Adrian Wainer

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  21. jdennis_99

    Fees are NOT going up to £9,000 per year. The MAXIMUM fee is going up to £9,000 per year – some universities will charge less than that. And the students with the lowest parental incomes will still not pay any fees at all.

    Secondly, don’t know if this is sinking in with any of you yet, but we’re borrowing £155BILLION A YEAR, just to make ends meet. It’s all very well saying ‘you shouldn’t cut this, you shouldn’t cut that’, but something’s got to give.

  22. David Jackson

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  23. Henry

    Oh why don’t we just get rid of all state education & save the money? People who want high-earning jobs at Google etc should find the cash to go to Eton or wherever. If they haven’t got it, that’s their problem: they should have been born to parents who’d made an effort.

    The current ‘deficit hysteria’ is a great opportunity for right-wingers to promote all sort of daft ideas they wouldn’t dare mention publicly in more normal times.

  24. Dirk vom Lehn

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  25. cim

    Some of this country’s greatest institutions, from the London School of Economics to SOAS, will effectively be privatised.

    Rubbish. They will receive the same – in fact, slightly more if they charge the expected £9k fees – funding per student from the government as they currently do. (And I’d expect LSE and SOAS to both be able to increase student numbers, too, and increase their teaching budgets as a result)

    The change from “funding based on expected student numbers” to “funding based on actual student numbers” is not privatisation. Indeed, given that universities are already private [usually charitable] bodies that receive government funding for certain activities, it’s no more “privatisation” than a change in details in some government catering contracts to pay per sandwich rather than a bulk sum for the year would be a “privatisation” of Tesco.

    There is quite a potential for unpredictability and change due to the deregulation of undergraduate student numbers, and how that shakes out in the sector may well lead to some universities shrinking, closing or merging (but others will expand) – but that is not a change that’s getting much attention: it’s all been on the (big but largely meaningless) numbers of “tuition fees” and “block grant teaching budgets”.

    jdennis_99: Fees are NOT going up to £9,000 per year. The MAXIMUM fee is going up to £9,000 per year

    Because of the way fees and repayments are structured, though, it doesn’t make any sense for universities to charge anything other than the maximum (except for a few courses), since it doesn’t make any difference to the majority of graduates whether they paid a £7k fee (the minimum practical to maintain existing funding levels) or a £9k fee.

    The incentive to charge anything other than the maximum fee actually (and perversely) decreases as the maximum fee rises, since if you were going to benefit from having your “loan written off” after 30 years under a £9k fee anyway, you won’t make any extra repayments under a £20k fee.

  26. Angela Pateman

    EXCELLENT: RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again //bit.ly/cmBDAb by David Lammy

  27. Chris Roberts

    “Some universities will charge less than £9000” not many I’ll bet and precisely because according to the figures of UCU and govts own figures, universities will need to charge approx £8200 just to “stand still”. Also it will firmly establish a two tier university system. Universities serve an incredibly useful social, pedagogical, cultural function. Many post 92 universities, often in metropolitan districts, provide access to university research and teaching that would be denied, and historically was denied to a large proportion of working class and lower middle class people. It’s a sort of invaluable civic socialisation that is very useful, for individuals, society as a whole….and the economy. A great deal of this (AHSS) research and teaching takes place in new and metropolitan universities – Goldsmiths; Middlesex; Kingston; South Bank; Westminster; declaration of interest – Roehampton…and this is just in London.

    Writing that the “UK borrows £155b A YEAR” is a fiscal argument, whilst the decision to cut (off) all teaching funds for AHSS subjects is ideological. Subordinating university education to the needs of “the market” is utterly preposterous and is the de-facto privatisation of universities – at precisely the time when it should be abundantly clear that ‘the market’ is incapable of providing for the needs of society in and of itself. Incidentally, the £155b is small change when compared to the estimated £850b that the bank bail-outs are expected to cost Remember that? Odd that we’re now being encouraged to transfer costs for this mess onto the public sector, and in this case, transfer all future costs onto the shoulders of students. This is surely a form of outsourcing (costs) isn’t it? There is no reason why the 6th largest economy in the world cannot support a well-educated population, it’s merely a question of priorities and political will. Your starting point: “something’s got to give” is not necessarily true, I’m afraid you’ve internalised the neo-liberal logic. However, even if we take this as a starting point, there are ways and means of “reducing the deficit” by “raising funds”. Not *all* about swingeing cuts. Progressive taxation; raising corporation tax to levels on a par with the rest of Europe (Ireland notwithstanding); cutting Trident; Closing tax loopholes that cost – on a very conservative estimate upwards of £15b PER YEAR (sorry, I’m just appropriating your shouty style).

    Another important thing is that this government are effectively placing themselves in a position whereby they are “social engineers and workforce planners”. Any reason why anyone imagines that governments and businesses are particularly well placed to perform such functions? Governments in particular have not got a glowing record in this area – import nurses and teachers from abroad anyone? That’s one of the things about academic research in Arts, Humanities and Social Science, sometimes ahead of the curve that then ‘feeds back’ into wider society. Things are pursued because they’re interesting, socially, politically, civically and culturally important. Not because they meet the demands of capital.

    This will be the only government in the world where subsidises for teaching costs in four areas – science, technology, engineering and mathematics/medicine – will be maintained but the rest of them will be deemed surplus to (economic) requirements. Even from an economic perspective it’s nonsensical and idiotic

  28. Chris Roberts

    P.S. @jdennis_99 apologies, you may not have “internalised the logic of neo-liberalism” I don’t know, or know you, I was simply trying to widen the debate, and get away from the fiscal towards the ideological.
    P.P.S. Good article from David Lammy BTW (forgot to mention)

  29. VAGA, UK

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  30. Michael Brannigan

    A bright piece. I can’t disagree with your logic or your predictions. Enough said.

  31. Jenny Bunker

    RT @leftfootfwd: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

  32. ஜனார்தனன் Jana Mills

    In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again //ow.ly/3biWd

  33. Finola Kerrigan

    RT @DavidLammy: bit late to this, but my article on defending the arts at Univ is up on LFF – //bit.ly/duwMv7 #arts #artsfunding

  34. Web Editor

    ATM Education News: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again… //goo.gl/fb/rZfQz

  35. Abigail @AnimateProj

    RT @SouthieJ: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again | Left Foot Forward //artsn.biz/bqMTRA #artsfunding

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    RT @SouthieJ: In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again | Left Foot Forward //artsn.biz/bqMTRA #artsfunding

  37. Alex Herod

    In defence of the liberal arts -why the government must think again | Left Foot Forward //artsn.biz/bqMTRA #artsfunding (via @SouthieJ)

  38. jdennis_99

    @ Chris Roberts:

    I recognise that spending cuts isn’t the only way to reduce the deficit, and that it could be done by raising taxes. However, raising taxes stifles economic growth, and can actually lead to lower tax revenues, making the deficit larger, not smaller.

    The necessity for real-terms reductions in public expenditure is fiscal, not idealogical. I agree there is a political aspect to what is cut, but this should be forming the crux of the debate, not whether to reduce spending or not, and at the moment, no one on the Left seems to be volunteering any proposals for what should be reduced instead.

    Insofar as the bank bailouts are concerned, that is a cyclical, not structural, deficit – the money will very likely be returned upon the sale of public shareholdings in those banks. As long it is done intelligently, unlike Gordon Brown’s disposal of gold reserves. Admittedly, some of the £155billion is also cyclical, and can be attributed to below-average tax revenues rather than overspending. But over £100billion is structural – the country is simply spending too much. In the face of this, arguing that the deficit argument is simply cover for rolling back the State does not wash.

    Public spending needs to be brought back under control so that the structural deficit is eliminated. The Government are doing this – I’m not an apologist for them, and I don’t agree with every step that they’re taking to accomplish this aim. But I do recognise that the general principle of re-balancing the public finances is absolutely necessary, and it’s time that people on the Left did as well.

  39. Louise de Winter

    Good article by David and I’ve enjoyed reading the posts above. The wider issue is one of what sort of society we ultimately want to be. We once believed in education for education’s sake, recognising that the discipline of research and exploration into a subject would bring both individual rewards and a societal return of its own. Now we are moving towards a system that only looks to replace skills gaps and respond to the needs of the market. But which one of us can really predict what those needs will be five or ten years hence and, more importantly, how can the super tanker of higher education be turned around quickly enough to meet them on demand? How can we predict the future ways of thinking, of ideas and subjects sparking off each other and the connections between different academic disciplines that might lead to something new and exciting? Let’s not forget that James Dyson trained at the Royal College of Art; scientists and engineers need designers to make their ideas come to life. After all, these other-worldly, slightly fey boffins may be good at coming up with the concepts, but they also need hard-headed, practical artists and designers to turn their ideas into 3-D reality!

    There is beauty and creativity in the sciences and rigour, discipline, evidence and analysis in the arts and humanities. They can borrow from each other to make a sum greater than their parts. To imply that one is more important than the other betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how people and ideas work.

    But, most importantly, a higher education should also be for the joy of learning, not just for jobs. Just as enjoying and appreciating the arts and humanities bring us a richness of experience and understanding of what it is to be human, so should an education broaden our horizons, spark our creativity and lead to the development of great ideas. To place a greater value on one set of academic subjects and disciplines to the exclusion of all others is to warp our development as a nation and beggar the minds of the future.

  40. Frances London

    RT @leftfootfwd In defence of the liberal arts – why the government must think again: //bit.ly/duwMv7 by @DavidLammy

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