Higher Education cuts: art, design, and social science snipped at the STEM

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In July 2021, then-education secretary Gavin Williamson announced funding cuts of 50% for degrees in art and design. More recently, there has been talk of limiting student numbers on non-STEM degrees in a bid to create a high-earning and science-oriented workforce. The Government has justified these moves by citing the lack of financial returns that non-STEM courses offer.

This overly commercialised view of a degree’s value and the purpose of university education has been branded ‘anti-intellectual’ by its critics, and indeed, it is an approach that is not only far too simplistic in its definition of ‘value’, but also inaccurate. Though indeed, the arts are not worth as much to the UK financially as science and technology, they still bring in a significant sum every year, generating nearly £11 billion per annum.

Money is not the path to contentment for all of us

Their real worth, however, is in the cultural capital that they produce; cultural capital that flows into a vibrant creative landscape that has consistently produced some of the best music, film, and works of fiction in the world for over half a century.

But it’s not simply about having James Bond and J.K Rowling to boast of. People do not take arts degrees because they’re after the big bucks — they take them because they love them. Keith Chapman, the man who created Bob the Builder and Paw Patrol (both huge financial successes), studied graphics at what was then Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design, now a part of Norwich University of the Arts. Writing in The Times Red Box, he credits his degree with giving him and people like him “a sense of personal fulfilment and a chance to do something we love for a living.”

Money is not the path to contentment for all of us. To many, like Chapman, the route to happiness is instead to be found in the freedom of expression and experimentation that is offered by their time spent studying what they love at university.

That’s just the arts. Social science subjects, economics aside, do not necessarily promise huge financial returns, and could also be hit by the cuts to student numbers that are being discussed. This, frankly, seems bonkers, especially when one considers that 20% of MPs studied politics, followed by 13% boasting history degrees and 12% law — Gavin Williamson himself studied social sciences! Economics at 10% is the only STEM subject to make the top six, and as has already been hinted at, even it is as much social science as it is STEM. The social sciences and arts subjects like history and English produce graduates whose skills are vital to the effective operation of a political system as complex and multifaceted as the UK’s, whether in frontline politics or behind the scenes in the civil service.

Balance is what is needed

STEM subjects can never compete with the arts and social sciences in the production of critical thinkers, able to see the world in less black-and-white terms and to treat that world with a healthy dose of scepticism. Nor do STEM degrees teach the skills in both written and verbal communication that are so central to courses in history, English, and philosophy. These are all skills that are crucial not only in Government, but in areas like journalism, law, and consultancy.

We need scientists, but we also need social scientists, artists, historians, and writers if we want a functioning and healthy society. Director of SOAS, Adam Habib, embellishes to claim that the social sciences have been more important than the work of natural scientists in tackling Covid-19, but something of the essence of his point is certainly valid. From a public health perspective, the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences need to work in tandem to produce a country in which expression is encouraged, political stability and accountability are ensured, and innovation in science and technology thrives. Mental health problems cannot be fixed by making everyone a scientist, just as issues in bodily health cannot be fixed by making us all actors. It is wrong to privilege one subject area over another — balance is what is needed if we are to address the challenges our society face.

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