Saturday, November 06, 2010

Of facts and calculations

Not surprisingly, the spending cuts affecting higher education in the UK look likely to have a disproportionate impact upon institutions that only or chiefly offer arts-based courses. Just as happened in the Thatcherite 80s, the balance has been tipped in favour of notionally “useful” subjects, that can guarantee the fastest possible return on investment; the difference now being that a far higher proportion of that investment is provided by the student rather than the state. The spirit of Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens’s utilitarian schoolmaster with his pathological loathing for anything other than facts, hangs over the coalition like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Leaving aside for a moment the heretical notion that a university education might be allowed to transcend the banalities of the balance sheet, and that having lots of educated, knowledgable people is good in and of itself for society as a whole, there are two reasons why this imbalance is stupid and self-defeating.

The first is that people who study arts subjects make money, for themselves and for the wider community. The whole Cool Britannia phenomenon was slightly embarrassing at the time, and now feels utterly cringe-making, but it did draw attention to the fact that there are some things – art, music, fashion, literature, even the odd movie – that the British can still make pretty bloody well, and other people will want to buy them. The Young British Artists – many of them spawned by Goldsmiths College, one of the institutions that seem likely to have their government support reduced to zero – were successful not just because of their creative skill, but also because of their entrepreneurial instincts. Moreover, because people like Damien Hirst and Jarvis Cocker were associated with British education, lots of foreign students thought it might be a good idea to come to Britain to study, bringing their dollars and euros and yen with them, much of it to the universities themselves.

Of course, just because Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Music and the Central School of Speech and Drama will suffer massive cuts in public subsidy, it doesn’t mean that Britain will stop producing good artists and musicians and actors. It just means that those artists and musicians and actors will come disproportionately – even more so than at present – from social groups where students can rely on the financial support of their parents. There’s nothing wrong with posh people; I’m hardly a horny-handed proletarian myself. But if the creative community is almost entirely drawn from the offspring of the professional classes, this will inevitably be reflected in the art and music and drama that is produced. Less Mike Leigh, more neo-Merchant-Ivories along the lines of Downton Abbey, which might produce a welcome fillip to the tourism figures for stately homes in the coming decades, but hardly presents an image of the United Kingdom as a nation ready to make a big noise against the clamour of the 21st century. I mean, why on earth would David Cameron (Eton and Oxford), Nick Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge) or George Osborne (St Paul’s and Oxford), not to mention the man tasked with the review into tuition fees (King’s, Ely and Cambridge) want to do such a thing?

The second point addresses the whole question of what a university education – indeed, any education – might be for. Yes, the Gradgrinds are right that we need more scientists and engineers to compete with the technological challenge offered by the growing Asian economies, not to mention plenty of lawyers and accountants to keep the wheels oiled and a doctor or two to stop them all dying on the job. But a modern society, a modern economy, also needs salespeople and marketers and copywriters, HR and PR staff, all sorts of people who are clever, but not in ways that can be neatly encapsulated by an academic or professional qualification; otherwise the glorious innovations of the scientists and engineers would just be garden-shed self-indulgences. Oh yeah, a few teachers might be handy as well. And what they learn at university is just as useful to them in their jobs as the science is to the scientists. Not necessarily the specific details of the literature or history or philosophy in their text books, although they’re always handy in a pub quiz; but the skills involved in dealing with something – texts, data, an ethical conundrum – coming up with a response to it, and communicating that response to an audience, coherently and accurately and persuasively.

That might sound like an easy call compared to isolating a genome or building a bridge, but evidence would suggest that people who can really do that aren’t all that thick on the ground, and they’re rather useful to businesses and other organisations. Not all employers need bridges to be built for them, and very few need an understanding of the geopolitical effects of the Congress of Vienna. But most employers need to draw on the sort of intellects that can analyse and explain the geopolitical effects of the Congress of Vienna, even if those intellects are engaged in planning a PR campaign a new bridge that your client’s just built. And while there are people who didn’t go to university who can do that, a degree course that challenges and provokes and teases such aptitudes from a student must surely be seen as a good thing, for the economy, for society and for its own sake.

Or maybe it’s just that if nobody studies arts subjects any more, eventually nobody will know who Thomas Gradgrind is?


Annie said...

Too much to say... will come back when my hangover has departed.

Annie said...

What is education for? is a question that none of them want to think about, on the left or the right.

It's too complex and politicians don't want complex, they want soundbites. They know education is important to people but they're not genuinely interested in it. Even when they commission independent reviews (such as the Bercow Report or the Cambridge Primary Review) they ignore the findings of their own studies, for example by cutting the budget on speech and language services or ignoring evidence on the damage being done by formalising Early Years education.

They know it wins votes so they want easy answers, and statistics they can point to "85% achieved grades A-C, that's a 20% rise on last year's results..." It means fuck-all really, but it's a "thought-terminating cliché"

There's never any discussion or debate about what it's for, and what we want it to be, and parents are just as confused as the government. It's outmoded, and it will stay that way because it takes a long time to build an education system and implement changes, and governments only have a short time and they want results too fast.

But even if we accept that the ultimate goal of education is to find a job and feed the economy, they don't follow their own logic through, because as you pointed out, one of the things we are best at, and export all over the world, is the arts.

Anyway, I could go on all day. Should probably reply over on mine. In conclusion, I agree with you.

WV: punters

Vicus Scurra said...

Thank you.
Too complex a subject to be tackled in a comment.
Although I would argue with whether anyone needs marketers. Golgafrincham.
I would prefer to see higher education only for those who really want it, and not for the 625,000 graduates with a 2.2 in business studies or accounting from the university of Potters Bar who have wasted their time and efforts just because that is what they have been conditioned to do.

Charles Edward Frith said...

I just like it when you are out and out political.

Anonymous said...

I regret not taking the opportunity provided by university attendance to refine just which alcoholic beverages suited me.All those wasted years when I could have been supping what I now enjoy.
But anyway - just be thankful you're not talking about the Republic of Ireland. It's beginning to be hard to imagine universities surviving the current economic plummet at all.
I'd consider emigrating if I hadn't already.

Tim F said...

That’s my main niggle, Annie: that they’ve misunderstood the point of education, but even if we accept their flawed understanding, they’ve still arsed it up. (And this applies to the previous administration as well.)

True, Vicus. The 50% target for university entrance was just daft. The problem is, if we accept a more modest target (say 20%?) we know that it still won’t be the most able 20%, or the 20% that can benefit the most, or offer the most, that will get in.

Oh, normal service will be resumed, Charles. Sorry.

BWT: Why don’t you go back, so you can emigrate again?