Universities cannot exist without arts and humanities

By Gabrielle Pickard
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, December 30, 2010
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It is not only the students who are discontent – to say the least – with the government's new proposals. Dr A J Pickard, academic leader in the Division of Professional Studies in the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, believes cutting grants for the arts and humanity disciplines and discouraging people from studying such subjects, will have a negative social impact.

"I think that it [cutting arts and humanity grants] will significantly adversely affect the long term quality of life. These subjects are about people and creativity, all the things that make life worth living. Paradoxically making it harder to study arts and humanities disciplines will also have an adverse effect on the economy, as students graduating with art degrees are significantly productive in economic terms," Dr A J Pickard told me.

The situation is just as bleak across much of the Commonwealth. In Australia, the arts and humanities at universities face a particularly dire situation. Similar to the coalition government in Britain, Australia's federal government has consistently reduced its higher education funding. Consequently, in recent years, not only have these faculties seen significant cuts in the number of staff, but also a decline in the number of students enrolling on such courses. In 2008, because of financial issues and low graduate employment opportunities, a large proportion of students dropped out of arts and humanities degrees. As a consequence, the Queensland University of Technology significantly scaled back its social science and humanities courses. Many other universities across Australia followed suit. In the same year, the number of undergraduate subjects available in the Arts Faculty at Melbourne University was reduced by 19 percent.

Surprisingly, in the United States, arts and humanities do not seem to be under as bigger threat. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B Johnson initiated a set of domestic programs designed to inaugurate social reforms such as eliminating poverty and racial injustice, known as the Great Society. This involved new major spending programs that addressed education. In 1965, the White House proposed the establishment of a National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities and requested $20 million in start up funds. Ever since this push towards promoting humanities, such disciplines have been an integral part of both university education in the U.S. and promoting a more "reformed" society.

Abolishing humanities from universities will never be achieved entirely as they rarely exist in isolation of other subjects. While my boyfriend's family were so keen on me studying a "proper" subject, such as science, they were probably unaware that the "sissy" subjects, overlaps with many other disciplines. For example, the field of semantics brings philosophy into contact with linguistics.

Nonetheless the demise of the arts and humanities in our universities are a sign of the times. A greater emphasis on structuring a "career culture" is omnipresent in contemporary societies. Instead of encouraging "lifelong" learning and skills that are transferable, what is now important is a piece of paper that proves you are a "lawyer" or a "doctor" – Subjects which the British government consider to be "economically productive".

Ironically, universities do not exist without humane inquiry and subsequently advanced capitalism and further education institutions are fundamentally incompatible; thus, the political implications of the British government's higher education proposals run much deeper than just increased tuition fees.

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/node_7077604.htm

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn


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