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20 June 2023

The attack on the humanities is snobbery dressed as realism

Our world-leading universities are in crisis, yet debate centres on “entitled” students who have the audacity to want to study literature.

By Hannah Rose Woods

You don’t need a degree in the humanities to recognise a faulty argument, but it does help if you want to make such an argument in a newspaper. “We should cheer decline of humanities degrees” ran a headline in the Times last week above Emma Duncan’s column on the economic woes of university graduates (I know, I know, someone else writes the headlines). Young people, Duncan writes, feel betrayed by older generations. Their housing costs are surging, they are burdened with student debt, and incomes for all but those in the highest-earning professions are too low for a comfortable life. The solution is to avoid studying English literature – which is “lovely stuff”, apparently, but “not a way to earn your bread”.

After that, the argument gets a little confused. “Those with jobs in banking and professional-services firms,” Duncan explains, “can command very comfortable salaries.” Which is perfectly true, as is the fact these sectors frequently recruit graduates in the humanities, including English literature. On the other hand, “the people who are struggling are those in nice, fluffy jobs like publishing and the creative arts, and in the caring professions” – which seems to be an argument against, for some reason, nurses. The problem, according to Duncan, is ultimately to do with “elite overproduction”: too many people are apparently going to university with the misconceived notion that it entitles them to join the elite, and this oversupply has driven down wages, when what young people should be doing instead is moving en masse into banking and/or Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees and apprenticeships.

So is this an argument in favour of higher Stem take-up, or fewer people going to university at all? I’m not sure it’s a distinction that particularly matters in these facts-free, vibes-based attacks on the humanities. The main problem with this genre of article isn’t even the sheer joylessness of its envisioned future, in which the only value of higher education is generating revenue. It’s that it’s instinctive snobbery masquerading as economic realism.

[See also: Why tuition fees are the progressive option]

For a start, the earnings gap between Stem and humanities or social science graduates in the UK is modest: they earn on average £38,272 and £35,360 a year respectively. Britain is a service economy, in which the creative industries sector represents 5.6 per cent of GDP. The creative industries are not only growing – contributing a record £109bn in 2021, according to estimates by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – but growing at a significantly faster rate than the economy as a whole. Those “nice, fluffy jobs” in publishing make the UK the largest exporter of books in the world.

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And humanities departments are, manifestly, teaching students skills that are valued by employers. Eight of the UK’s ten fastest growing sectors employ more humanities and social science graduates than graduates of other disciplines. In a changing and uncertain world, they have, in that strangely diminishing phrase, transferrable skills.

You have to suspect that if English literature degrees sounded less appealing, it would be harder to ignore their very obvious value. Which is not to fall into the opposite trap of defending the value of the humanities on economic grounds alone – and underestimating the creativity that sustains Stem subjects. It’s a false dichotomy to put the arts and culture and everything joyful in a box marked “frivolous extras”, and to have another box marked “economically productive”. Except the dichotomy is made, again and again, in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.

These kinds of faux-economic arguments against the humanities are part of a broader ideological attack on our universities, in which the right-wing media obsessively searches for signs of supposed “woke indoctrination” to be first blown out of all proportion, and then aggressively cracked down upon. The options seem to be to jealously guard Oxbridge places for private school pupils, or decry the whole sector as “woke” beyond repair and celebrate its decline.

It is a sad irony of our political and media discourse, in which everything is ultimately reduced to a culture war, that the universities which are subject to constant bad-faith critique perhaps have the strongest claim to being world-leading institutions of which we could be patriotically proud. The UK is home to 19 of the global top 100 universities, four of them in the top ten for arts and humanities according to Times Higher Education (Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Edinburgh). And it is the humanities in which those universities have the strongest lead. According to the latest report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, UK humanities research activity was 49 per cent higher than the global average, outperforming all other disciplinary research areas in the UK.

Our universities are in crisis, from overworked and insecurely employed staff to fraught relations with university management, which means, due to industrial action, that thousands of students will not graduate this summer. But our media debates centre on “entitled” students and left-wing lecturers, and remain just as unserious as ever.

[See also: Why universities are making us stupid]

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