Arts Degrees – Why Bother?


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Hope you portray your arts and humanities degree as a vocational subject that yields measurable economic benefits.

Degree courses in the arts and humanities seem to have become the unwanted stepchild of universities and higher education policy makers. In Japan, universities recently came under pressure to close down degree programs in the humanities and social sciences, after the education minister demanded that universities focus on vocational, practically relevant disciplines (1, 2, 3). Even though the Japanese government softened its demands after its original proposal resulted in a furious public debate, a deeper crisis persists, according to a report published by the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective:

“That is, the institutional setting of incorporated national universities—particularly the uneven resource distribution based on the evaluation of achievements—has systematically worked to the detriment of social science and especially the humanities, which are generally far less suited than natural-scientific fields to produce short-term measurable or quantifiable outcomes. Under these circumstances, a number of national universities have already taken steps to scale back the humanities or social science faculties and/or to close down some humanities-related departments in the teacher-training faculties.”

The happenings in Japan point to an international trend in higher education policy and management, towards vocational subjects that yield measurable economic benefits. Thus, former UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in 2014 warned students to students to stay away from degrees in the arts and humanities, and some critics argue that a “war against the humanities” is taking place at British universities. Still, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 169,825 students were enrolled in degree programmes in the creative arts and design in the academic year 2015/2016. Why bother with such degrees? How to put them to good use? A recent analysis in The Guardian suggests some answers.

The article asks how universities ‘can help solve the creative arts crisis’ and gives five suggestions: 1) closer collaboration with industry, 2) universities should offer residencies to industry, 3) improve transitions from study to work, 4) run arts festivals to feed skill acquisition and networking opportunities, 5) run campaigns to e.g. earn tax breaks for the arts and develop outreach campaigns to increase public involvement in the arts.

While the article offers some interesting and practical suggestions, its underlying assumptions are both interesting and widespread. They can be distilled into three interrelated themes:

  1. The value of education is its usefulness to employers.
  2. Arts education is not worthwhile if it is not useful to employers
  3. Un/under employment is a problem of unemployable people rather than broader social structures.

Each of these themes underscores the degree of colonization of the arts by economic discourses. If education is not profitable, it is not worthwhile. We can see the first two themes at the start when the problem to which the author is responding is defined. What is the creative arts crisis?

“The creative arts are in crisis in the UK. At school level, arts A-levels, including creative writing, are being dropped, while the new Ebacc prioritises Stem subjects. For universities, the increasing focus on graduate salaries as a measure of success is undermining courses in the creative arts. However, it is crucial that we protect creative education – it provides the skills our knowledge economy will need in a future where jobs will be increasingly automated.”

Arts programmes are being dropped and it is becoming clear that their value is in question. Yet, while there is a criticism of the tendency to measure success in terms of graduate salaries, the antidote to this is measuring them not in terms of money, but skills. From this perspective, we shouldn’t be celebrating comparative exploitation, but rather that graduates have something that can be exploited at all.

That the value of a creative arts education lies primarily in employability is not questioned. Thus, implicit throughout the article is the notion that the underlying cause of the creative arts crisis is a lack of employability. If only students could be made more employable, then the creative arts would thrive.

Of course, how a problem is defined influences how it is solved. Increasingly, the waning societal valuation of the arts and social sciences is seen in these terms—if their value to a company’s bottom line is at all in question, then their entire raison d’etre is in doubt.

However, there are many ways the problem could be defined. Is it a crisis of employability or a crisis of meaning in society more generally? Contemporary society struggles to find value and meaning through anything other than economic benefits and, increasingly, improvements to things like physical and mental health. Should the economic argument fail, it won’t be long before arts advocates start handing out happiness surveys. The idea that the arts might be somehow good in and of themselves, even if they do not increase profitability, is not considered. Indeed, the ‘creativity’ in ‘creative arts’ is implicitly portrayed in the article as something of a problem. The antidote to unrestrained creativity is to ensure things are contained by clear performance indicators. Closer collaboration with industry is needed to ensure that creativity is kept within the bounds of what is useful to industry. A similar thing has occurred across the arts and even the sciences. Individual thought is a loose cannon. Standardization is safe and measurable. Checklists are the way forward.

As the author writes, ‘The problem is exacerbated by the disincentives for universities to offer creative arts courses: low graduate salaries in the creative industries harm their performance in the teaching excellence framework and in new longitudinal data on educational outcomes.’ Yet, the solution is not to question these frameworks as a valid way of measuring the outcomes of the arts, but to transform the arts so that they can compete with the sciences in producing outcomes quantifiable in money.

This is little surprising as the argument for the intrinsic value of the arts is one that is more and more difficult to make. In a cultural climate dominated by economic imperatives, in which students are increasingly encouraged to see education as an investment in future employability, the idea that someone might pursue an arts education simply because it is interesting or because it expands the mind and soul, sounds not only frivolous, but outright reckless. And yet, perhaps somewhat romantically, when asked to imagine a world in which the arts only exist in the context of service to industry, many of us quite rightly balk.

This brings forward the third, and much larger, though much more implicit, theme that the article exemplifies: The main issue is with individual outcomes rather than broader social structures. As sociologists, we are often caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to social problems. We are frequently recognized for bringing to light some of the most important issues of the day. Unfortunately, the solutions to these problems are often far too radical to be palatable. A fellow sociologist communicated to us her frustration at teaching sociology to health professionals who had been given the essay question, How can health professionals help solve health inequalities? She laughed, “How can I get them to stretch ‘we can’t’ into an entire essay?” That is, the issues with which higher education is currently grappling—most notably, how to understand its meaning and purpose as it is drawn into the cultural and economic context of neoliberalism—are large and complex. The solutions are not simple and may be far more radical than is likely to be palatable.


Ashley Frawley and Daniel Nehring

Ashley Frawley is a senior lecturer in public health, policy and social sciences at the University of Swansea. Social Science Space blogger Daniel Nehring is a assistant professor of sociology at Catholic University of Daegu, South Korea.

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The colonization of universities by the thinking of capitalistic corporations is going to kill them. Universities must pursue truth and the well-being of mankind, and not exclusively the money of rich donors. Without the arts and the humanities, perhaps life is not worth living.

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