Modern universities must not drop the humanities

Humanities benefit individuals, societies and economies. They should be accessible to students from all backgrounds, says Neal Juster

June 15, 2022
Source: Getty

Life is full of ambiguity and uncertainty. The best path through it all is plotted when the way forward is seen from varying viewpoints.

Although I acknowledge the danger of gross generalisation, we can say that science and technology courses produce graduates with strong technical and analytical skills, while arts and humanities courses produce graduates with strong creative and critical thinking skills, as well as a grasp of how society evolves and adapts. Remove any element of this multiple perspective and society is in trouble.

As an engineer, I am not at all surprised that many leaders of major organisations started their careers with humanities degrees. The buildings we live, work and play in; what we watch on the television or in the cinema; the phone apps we flip through; the books we read; the music we listen to and the clothes we wear, much of which might not exist without those who have studied aspects of the arts and humanities. And this is not an exhaustive list.

This is why the current attack on the arts and humanities education in the UK and elsewhere is extremely worrying. Recently announced plans to cut courses, staff and whole subject areas at some English universities make it ever more important for higher education and industry leaders to restate the importance of arts and humanities – for both students and society as a whole.

Arts and culture are a staple of the UK economy. The industry generates nearly £34 billion a year and supports close to 400,000 jobs. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was conspicuously productive, with gross value added per worker standing at £62,000 for arts and culture, compared with £46,800 for the wider UK economy. The “soft power” that underwrites the UK’s status in the world also depends on the success of our creative industries.

As the country emerges from a pandemic that has had a devastating impact on the arts and cultural sector, universities must play their part in ensuring that these industries thrive again. At the University of Lincoln, we were very pleased recently to welcome arts minister Lord Parkinson to our new Barbican Creative Hub. Located in the heart of the city and funded primarily through the Towns Deal Fund, it will serve as a community creative hub when it is completed in 2023 by providing galleries and creative workspaces. It will catalyse rapid growth in the creative sector, not just in Lincoln but across the region and the county, allowing us to harness and encourage local artistic talent and provide pathways to employment.

The Barbican is just one example of our commitment to the creative sector. The University of Lincoln has grown at quite a pace in recent years; we have new schools in science and medicine, and we submitted to three new units of assessment in the 2021 REF, where no academic activity existed in 2014. However, importantly, we have not shrunk the arts to enable this growth in STEM.

As well as being incredibly important in their own right, humanities add value across a broad spectrum of jobs, services and subjects that we might ordinarily regard as purely scientific. That is why, at Lincoln, many students enrolled on a STEM course are also studying humanities.

It is also important that arts and humanities should not become the preserve of the better off and privileged. Cuts in post-1992 universities will impact particularly on their typical student demographic: first-generation, often under-privileged, and local.

Yes, educational leaders should recognise that teaching resources are diminishing and that ministers’ expectations are changing. We must teach efficiently, attract talented students and help them to find a path that gets them into good employment. It is the wider role of universities to work with employers and regional partners to help ensure that opportunities and good jobs exist.

However, universities are not and neither should be technical colleges. They are broad, both in the opportunities they offer and the benefits they give to society.

Through the arts and humanities, we witness different cultures. We understand the diverse experiences of others. We critique the past and present, and we anticipate the future. We need to continue to provide these degrees.

Neal Juster is vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (3)

Good to hear.
This engineer badly, very badly needs to learn 1) about the humanities and about the arts, which are not synonymous; and 2) about their places in various universities today. There is a a large and complicated literature, he the engineer opine without knowledge or reference He thus self-repudiates. Totally unprofessional and unacceptable
I take a different view. The course I teach on (BSc Ophthalmic Dispensing) has amongst the lowest entry requirements of any vocational course yet consistently attracts large numbers of graduates who have been unable to gain employment with the degrees they have obtained, end up working in an opticians, then decide they want to be a dispensing optician or optometrist. Many of these students feel let down by a system that drives them into debt for no other reason than that they were good at English or Art or History or Geography at school. Jobs that have traditionally accepted people with any degree, such as retail management, journalism or the civil service increasingly expect their graduate trainees to have studied the area of work they will be engaging with. Since all degrees should teach transferrable skills such as lifelong learning and critical thinking surely it is better to target your degree towards the field of work you want to go into?


Featured jobs