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26 October 2021

The Conservatives’ war on the humanities will hurt working-class students

In the name of “anti-elitist” politics, Britain’s cultural landscape will likely become even more middle class.

By James Bloodworth

A common theme running through contemporary conservatism is paranoia about a cultural “elite”. The UK government has already targeted university humanities departments, which it views as hotbeds of subversive thought. When he was still working at No 10, Dominic Cummings railed against “graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers”. 

Now the government is reportedly considering plans to limit the number of students studying creative arts subjects such as music and drama. The proposed limit on the number of graduates would also apply to courses whose graduates earn lower salaries. 

Right-wingers in the UK have become adept at waging war on liberal institutions. It is a formula that the US Republican Party has pioneered in recent times, vituperatively and successfully painting “coastal elite” liberals – who once claimed to speak on behalf of working class Americans – as snobs and “luvvies” who are fundamentally different from ordinary people.

This is not to say that sections of the left haven’t occasionally made the job of the right’s ascendant cultural warriors easier, in the UK as well as the US. A strain of contemporary progressivism appears to believe that the working class has exhausted its historical role; “white men” are dismissed tout court. Instead of building the institutions of working-class power, this form of politics seeks to enforce language codes, censorship and sanctions against ideological heresy. Fashionable orthodoxies are dogmatically adhered to then jettisoned as soon as the direction of the wind changes. Those who fail to adapt to these changing currents quickly enough are frequently expelled from the community of the good. 

Meanwhile, a form of technocratic liberalism is apt to confuse cognitive ability with moral worth. Over recent decades, as old industries have disappeared and skills training has been chronically underfunded by successive governments, those who are not natural exam-passers have occasionally been left behind. As David Goodhart notes in his recent book about the struggle for dignity and status in the 21st century, Head Hand Heart, this attitude runs deep. “Newspapers are far more likely to highlight the accidental death of a promising 22-year-old medical student than a 22-year-old who works as a hairdresser,” Goodhart writes.

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I was certainly never a member of any “elite”. And yet, university was my ticket out of the small coastal town in Somerset where I grew up without “connections”, and without the financial backing to move to London and do a lengthy internship (in a recent survey, 87 per cent of those working in the creative industries reported having worked for free in some capacity). 

As part of its plans to limit the number of students taking lower-earning degrees, the government is reportedly considering new minimum A-level grade requirements to raise the entry bar for some courses and deter students from applying. Yet there is evidence that denying university places to students with weaker A-levels would disproportionately deter poorer students from entering higher education.

This is not because poorer students lack academic ability. Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of students from the poorest areas attain a First or 2:1 degree at university. However, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to fall behind during first and secondary school. Very often, they only truly catch up with their middle-class peers and thrive once they get to university. That was how it went for me. 

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There are probably some in the UK who would be better off (financially at least) if they learned a trade instead of going to university. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that male creative arts graduates earn less on average at the age of 29 than people with similar backgrounds who don’t go to university. Moreover, the much-trumpeted graduate “pay premium” (which has declined over time) mainly applies to those attending top Russell Group universities.

But perhaps the government ought to become better at imparting this knowledge to prospective students. Presently, many students are left in the dark about the extent to which a university degree will help them get a well-paid job.

However, if students are properly informed about the state of the graduate labour market, and if they decide to go on to university and study a subject in the arts or humanities anyway, why is it the government’s job to prevent them from doing so? Is education not also about imparting to students the value of learning for learning’s sake, rather than simply endowing them with the credentials to earn a big salary? 

Sectoral interests prevent the Conservative Party from going after those who reap vast dividends from the UK’s distorted economy – a genuine elite if such a thing exists. And so a culture war without end has been declared by the right against the “sneering institutions” of the liberal left. It is grimly ironic that, in the name of an “anti-elitist” politics purportedly being waged on behalf of working-class voters, Britain’s cultural landscape will likely become even more middle class.

[See also: If the Tories are serious about social mobility, they’ll have to level down the aspirations of middle-class parents]