Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Grants not Loans, but Remember to Fund Arts and Humanities Degrees too!

Jeremy Corbyn has gained such ground that even those of a more conservative position are seriously debating the abolition of university tuition fees and reinstating grants. With the abolition of fees comes great emancipatory potential for those from underprivileged backgrounds, but there also comes a great threat to the arts.

The arts at university, despite under funding, are currently somewhat protected. They are protected because people still want to study them and are willing to pay £9,000 a year to do so. A move away from this model to one fully publicly funded has re-opened a debate around how many students we should fund and even how many universities we should have. A sub-set of this debate relates to which subjects we should fund. Those who only see the world in economic terms appear to feel that we have too many students in Higher Education, too many universities and that we do not need so many students of the arts and humanities. Dominic Holland embodied this position today on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff. He claimed that many degrees do not need to be three years long and that humanities degrees could be completed in only one year. This is like a parent telling their child that they will not pay for a year's driving lessons, because you can learn to drive in a month: if you cannot learn in a month, you are not good enough an should not drive! While it is clearly possible to demonstrate every manoeuvre and explain every situation covered by the test in this time frame, it takes time for this information to sink in. I could show Mr Holland how to play a guitar riff in thirty seconds, but would he be able to learn it in one minute? How long does it take to learn to play or compose music? How long does it take to learn to draw? You certainly could learn arts at university in one year - but not to the same level. The same is true of the humanities. Arts and humanities degrees are not about learning a set amount of information in the quickest possible time. Students learn new ways of thinking and seeing the world, but it takes time for these ideas to sink in and become fully formed.

Public funding of Higher Education is socially responsible because it removes financial barriers to education and our graduates benefit the whole of society in uncountable ways. If I get run over by a bus, I want the very best doctor to treat me - not the best who could afford to take on the debt or the best who came from a social background where going to university was an option. If I am falsely accused of a crime I want the State to provide me with the very best possible defence lawyer. I want our brightest and best scientists and engineers working on ways to improve our lives. But I also want critical thinkers who can interpret and challenge the so-called fake news and post-Truth climate we live in. I want creative thinkers who can imagine new ways of living in and running the world. I also want new generations to contribute towards new modes of cultural production. There is a cost to sending people to university, but the benefits are far greater. France has a huge tourist industry based on its historic place as a haven for artists. People visit Monet's garden in Giverny and Aix-en-Provence to see where Van Gogh lived and the Mont Sainte-Victoire that Cezanne painted for about fifteen years. Paris is perhaps even famous as the place where great artists such as Dali, Picasso and the Impressionists once lived. All these reasons for France's art economy have nothing to do with the artists' economic success in their lifetime: France did not invest in and foster these artists for a short term payback. All of my examples had their success (or at least their break through) between the turn of the last century up until around the Second World War, but France continues to reap its reward. However, continuing to view this debate in purely economic terms is misguided. We should fund education so that everybody who gains the entry criteria can study if they want to without the fear of being saddled with £50,000 of debt; a debt that will affect the graduate's ability to buy a home, as Student Loan repayments are considered as outgoings on mortgage applications.

Returning to the target of this article, Dominic Holland stated that he had two degrees and a Masters degree - all of which were "a complete waste of time". This is evident in the lack of sophistication of his argument. Holland simply cannot see that his successful career in comedy and television might be, at least in part, due to his formative years at university. Rather than write off arts and humanities Higher Education for future generations, Holland would do better to ask himself why, when he had access to a great library, a network of peers and expert academics in his chosen field, he considers his time to be a waste. Perhaps it is he who wasted his time, or perhaps he needed a lot longer than three years for the information and experience to sink in, develop and become useful to him.

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