The Battle to Protect the Arts and Humanities

The death of the Arts and Humanities would herald the death of the university. Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, is ready to don his armour and battle to protect the Arts and Humanities. It is time to STEM the tide.

“I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing, and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!” – Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, Act 1 Scene 3

Remember the Arts and Humanities

We know COVID-19 has shaken up everything and everyone.

In higher education, there are pressing issues everywhere you look, wherever you work:

  • A-level and BTEC results
  • Campus social distancing
  • Face masks
  • Student accommodation
  • Staff child care
  • Student number controls
  • International recruitment
  • Clearing
  • Face-to-face versus blended versus online learning
  • 2020 graduates’ employment.

You can add plenty more of your own to this list. They are not unique to the UK HE sector either.

You really don’t want to hear any more about the challenges of COVID-19. I’m guessing you’ve had it up to here with other pre-pandemic problems that equally haven’t gone away: Brexit, Augar, the Office for Students.

Nevertheless, I’m re-hoisting the flag for the Arts and Humanities, putting on my armour, and re-taking the field. Who’s with me?

Protect the Arts and Humanities

The STEM campaign is not a new onslaught.

There certainly isn’t room in a short blog to rehash all the old arguments.

But there is a real and present danger that the battle will be won in the margins of other more immediate debates, using the convenient cloak of coronavirus as cover.

And the loss of the arts and humanities will be much more devastating to our business than I think many are willing to admit.

I’ll cut straight to the chase: I don’t believe universities exist to create ‘job-ready’ graduates. In fact, I find ‘job-ready’ about as risible and fatuous as ‘oven-ready’, and just as misused.

We all know the truism that many of the jobs that future graduates will take don’t even exist yet. We also know that our parents, or even our grandparents, were the last generations who could claim to keep one job for life. As an example, I turn 50 this year, and I’ve had three very different careers, so far.

It is socially and ethically wrong that universities should be mills, churning out graduates who clutch applied degrees in the jobs that industry provides.

Or, if you prefer to keep things less philosophical, it is also economic and practical nonsense.

The value of Arts and Humanities

Universities don’t exist to create job-ready graduates. Our role is to prepare graduates for the world they face.

Semantics, you protest?

No, this is a very important difference. The world in which our graduates of today and tomorrow will have to find their way is full of shocks and surprises. It is mutable, diverse, and uncompromisingly complex.

To crib Whitman, the world contradicts itself because it contains multitudes. STEM simply does not have all the answers.

Technical skills are all very well, but by the very nature of their specialised fields they often have a limited shelf-life. I argue that it’s up to industry and the private sector to carry out that specialised training, as part of continuous lifelong learning. Moreover, industry should fund that training, because it is expensive and should not be subsidised by the public purse.

To thrive and succeed in tomorrow’s world, graduates need the creative, analytical, communicative, discursive, presentational, rhetorical skills, and sometimes just plain contrariness, that the Arts and Humanities inculcate.

STEM rarely looks kindly on ambiguity. The Arts and Humanities writhe in ambiguities.

External threats to the Arts and Humanities

Back to the battlefield: there are fresh assaults already upon us.

The UK government may lob a few grenades at us, but the attack is at hand elsewhere.

As part of its HE reform, Australian is doubling fees for arts degrees, whilst reducing fees for STEM. Taking History as an example, this would mean a whopping 113% increase. Personally, I’d raise fees in STEM and lower them for everything else.

Doubling fees for arts degrees is ugly, outrageous opportunism, playing to the popular gallery, but firmly driven beneath by profiteering.

For that reason, it was good to see the Australian education minister forced to correct ‘sloppy and mischievous’ university statistics that falsely implied Arts and Humanities graduates employment rates are far below STEM graduates.

We must remain wary of top-down STEM bias in government, largely driven as it is by financial incentives and corporate interest.

But university leadership is problematic too.

Internal threats to the Arts and Humanities

I’d love to see a statistical analysis, but my own sense is that too many vice-chancellors come from STEM backgrounds.

Is there perhaps a correlation between this and the lack of people skills, social empathy, and critical understanding that is sometimes decried by university academic and administrative staff as a failing in certain institutional leaders?

I would add that, internationally, the situation is somewhat mirrored, and simultaneously somewhat less transparent.

As an uplifting example, at a UAE National Day celebration for staff in my own university (which is a small, specialised, and almost entirely STEM research institution), the Vice-Chancellor declaimed classical Arabic poetry. All the engineers, computer scientists, architects, educational psychologists, sustainability, business, management, finance, and accountancy academics joined in unprompted.

I had certainly never witnessed anything similar in STEM faculty meetings I had to attend in the UK.

Interestingly, and a fitting note on which to end: an anecdotal survey of Chief Operating Officers, Registrars, University Secretaries, and similar, across bodies like AHUA, reveals the people who successfully run the operations of our universities are from every educational background and sometimes none.

Champion the Arts and Humanities

It’s time to champion the full range of HE subjects. That includes both STEM and the Arts and Humanities.

I encourage you to:

  • Hold out against divisive fee tiering
  • Resist a system that is predicated on how much money students’ degrees will earn them on graduation
  • Let the job market marketise itself, rather than employers dictating the terms of education.

Our active input, as strong administrative leaders is vital to ensuring universities don’t become narrow, blinkered conveyor belts of industrial templates.

Remember, a free range turkey always tastes better than an oven-ready, pre-basted battery bird.

Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s first international member. You can follow Hugh on Twitter and send Hugh an email. You can also read about Hugh’s life in lockdown.