The Roundheads and the Cavaliers: The Arts and Humanities Now

The threat has been hovering for a while, but first with the Browne report and now with Gideon Osborne’s spending review, two almighty strikes have been made. Presuming the Liberal Democrats betray their election promises and the Browne report is passed through Parliament, the third and final strike will be administered and government support for teaching the arts and humanities in England will be, in an instant, destroyed.

There has been a fair bit of lamentation in the arts and humanities community. I don’t actually think they have been singled out in particular, as there are plenty of other disciplines which will not be receiving funding – business studies, geography, media studies, psychology, economics (!).

The logic is much simpler than this – the arts and humanities don’t make big money, save lives nor provide any extra special interest that helps the country, so they do not deserve any extra support. Full stop.

It’s a simplistic, roundhead view of the world which has been gathering pace for many years. In some respects, I surprised it has taken this long to happen. Labour MP Charles Clarke made noises about medieval historians a while back.

More generally, the logic that underpins this argument has been in place for a while. Anything creative or reflective, anything that does not provide obvious tangible benefits, anything which provides difficult ideas that may question current orthodoxy, or anything that, say this quietly, may be related to pleasure and enjoyment in any sense should not be supported by the government, ie the tax paid by the ‘ordinary man on the street.’ If you want it, then you have to pay for it yourself.

But I also wonder if we in the arts and humanities have been too cavalier in our approach. Have we done all we can to fight for the arts and humanities? It may be due to the pressures of the REF and specialisation, but have there been too many scholars studying their own special interests and not painting a bigger picture? Too concerned with Edward Gibbons’ footnotes, with Dutch headdresses in seventeenth-century Leiden or with the changing notions of gender in the Spartan army. Valuable research, but without sight of the bigger picture it fits into, too isolated to convince the public of its worth.

There may also have been confusion over what the arts and humanities do and mean – the type of work done is actually much broader than the somewhat clichéd examples in the paragraph above.

But reputations in the world of education change slowly, and the undoubted enthusiasm of the humanist to seek out and analyse recondite knowledge still sets a tone that the roundhead mentality will struggle to comprehend.

What is / was needed then was this bigger argument. I see scraps of the (argument) all over the place; university brochures talking about the skills learnt as an historian, research council publications on the disciplines’ economic impact; the obvious evidence provided by the country’s love of family history, costume drama, its somewhat skewed sense of historical Britain

But there is never one big winning argument that would make you sleep more safely at night. There is no real voice for the arts and humanities as a whole in the UK (1). No one body or group presenting a dazzling argument as to the intrinsic nature of the arts and humanities to society.

It never seems to have punctured public consciousness that the arts and humanities might be a good thing. And therefore the reductive nature of the puritan argument – either save lives or earn money – has squeezed out the more nuanced arguments for the arts and humanities.

So what will this all mean? There is plenty of talk about the class divide being widened by the reforms of the universities, of the poor being left behind. I don’t think it will be as quite straightforward as that. Scholarships and hard work will allow (some of) the less well off to find lucrative careers in business, medicine and the law.

But what it will do is further divide the whole world of culture and the humanities. Unless you come from a very financially secure background, the prospect of running up c.£20k (2) debt in tuition fees (plus interest) and then another £25-30k in living costs will put off all but the very idealistic. (3)

Salaries for humanities graduates mean the debts will be a long-time burden, not something that can be ditched with the first few pay packets. It will not be an attractive proposition for those from non-wealthy background. Studying history or archaeology will become a further sign of wealth, of a certain class position. And therefore owning the knowledge related to those field will further become a sign of a certain class position.

The roundhead view of the United Kingdom already equates enjoying the arts, investigating others’ culture or questioning common sense as an indulgent middle class pursuit. This can only be heightened as the cost of the principle (although not the only) route to such knowledge is substantially raised.

What else might it mean. Well it’s difficult to predict the future and a market-driven Higher Education system may bring some odd surprises – the situation is not apocalyptic yet. But if we don’t start to fight and agitate about this then we run the risk of a whole range of problems – fewer well-trained musicians; fewer artists and actors (two fields in which the UK has been remarkably successful); fewer archaeologists to protect our heritage; (even) fewer citizens who can speak a foreign language; many academics, particularly those outside the wealthy Russell Group universities, will find their job security threatened; with such changes, there will be fewer people to correct mistakes and question commonly held opinions, there will be fewer experts on the cultures of others’ countries; there will be fewer people to teach students that not all they see in the media is true. When you tie this in with the fact that exactly the same is happening to the social sciences, you suddenly have a prospect in a vacuum in the whole democratic apparatus of considered and critical debate.



(1) On the day of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Arts and Humanities Research Council was remarkably silent. Its twitter account stated that “AHRC funded research has shown, thanks to isotope analysis, that York’s ‘Headless Romans’ had exotic origins” But the AHRC is in a very difficult position. It does not have true independence; to stand up and fight government policy would be biting the hand that feeds it.

(2) One chink of light – the arts, and especially the humanities are very cheap to teach, in the required infrastructure is a good library and an Internet connection. Perhaps tuition fees will be low … one can but hope

(3) And given the costs, wIll anyone ever do a Ph.D in the humanities again … ?!


Filed under Arts and Humanities, Universities

4 responses to “The Roundheads and the Cavaliers: The Arts and Humanities Now

  1. A very sensible and thoughtful blog. My only quibble is the idea that Russell group universities are wealthy. Do you know how big a deficit we have at UCL? And ours is a lot smaller than Oxford’s. I suspect not one of the Russell group is deficit free, so if we are wealthy, lord help the rest….

  2. RO

    Of course in any rational society funding priorities would be completely reversed. Those disciplines, activities, human affairs which have social benefits, which contribute to the total sum of human contentment and happiness, and which do not bring in any tangible financial benefit would be fully funded. All those areas whose main purpose is to make money, either for the State or the private sector, would have to completely fund their own training and education programs. Well, we can keep imagining that it might happen one day when humankind grows up…

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