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Higher Education: Arts and Humanities

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following the recent announcement of staff cuts in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of East Anglia, what steps they are taking to support the study of the arts and humanities in higher education.

My Lords, we are supporting the study of the arts and humanities across our education system. Our EBacc ambition has humanities at its heart in order to increase the number of pupils studying these subjects at GCSE and beyond. We are introducing higher technical qualifications and T-levels in creative arts and design, and continue to support our higher education institutions, including maintaining funding for our world-leading specialist providers at £58 million for the 2023-24 financial year.

My Lords, would the Minister acknowledge that these cuts, while shocking in themselves, are simply the latest in a pattern of such cuts at universities across the country? In practical terms, they are to make savings, but more materially, they are the result of a long-term downgrading by this Government of arts education from primary school to university. The UEA cuts include creative writing, yet its globally renowned MA course has produced Booker and Nobel Prize winners. Does the Minister appreciate that, if the Government continue with their destructive policy towards arts education, in the end it will be our global reputation which suffers?

I absolutely do not accept what the noble Earl has just asserted. If we look at full- time undergraduates undertaking arts and humanities courses, at a time of significant growth in our undergraduate population, the figure is almost unchanged between 2019 and 2022—from 20% moving to 19%. The percentage of disadvantaged young people undertaking these qualifications has also been stable. Looking across similar providers which have a significant percentage of arts and humanities provision, a number of them are in a comparably much stronger financial position.

My Lords, this is a sad and very tragic event for the University of East Anglia, where I had the great pleasure of lecturing at one time—the time of our beloved friend Patricia Hollis. It is bad news for a distinguished department at a good university. It is also showing a very limited appreciation, both by the Government and by the funding councils, of the balance and way of assessing the merits of different university subjects. This seems to be a sad and deplorable cheapening of our universities, at a time when many other universities in other countries wish to partner our own fine institutions.

I do not question for a second—and regularly stand at this Dispatch Box to celebrate—the success of our great universities. Those universities, rightly, would also stress their independence and autonomy. I simply made, in my reply to the noble Earl, a comparison between some of the sad, recent events at the University of East Anglia and other comparable institutions.

Is my noble friend aware that the Royal Historical Society, of which I have the honour to be a fellow, has expressed real concern not only at this particular decision but at its wider implications? Would she consider discussing with the president of the Royal Historical Society and others what their concerns are and see whether she can assist them?

I would be more than happy to meet with the Royal Historical Society. But, again, it is the responsibility of the Office for Students to make a judgment on the financial viability and sustainability of our higher education institutions when they are registered. Its view is that the overall aggregate financial position of the sector is sound. I appreciate there are individual institutions which are under financial pressure, but they are autonomous institutions which need to run their own finances.

My Lords, while it is absolutely clear that His Majesty’s Government have put a lot of emphasis on being a science superpower, have they also considered the ramifications of losing courses in modern foreign languages? If we aspire to be a global player and want to trade with other countries, the use of English is great, but to really understand other countries and cultures, we need scientists as well as people doing humanities who can really communicate in foreign languages.

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that modern foreign languages are critically important; hence our emphasis on the EBacc in schools to create a pipeline of students who are confident in exploring another language and the bursaries we offer teachers to deliver them.

My Lords, in its recent inquiry, the Communications and Digital Committee of your Lordships’ House heard that the OfS introduced a measure of low-value courses that failed to take into account the earnings profile in arts and creative careers, which often start on lower salaries or in freelance roles. Does the Minister agree with the committee that what it called a “sweeping rhetoric” about low-value courses needs to change, to reflect not just the realities of work in the sector but also the important point that individuals can and do choose to pursue careers that earn lower salaries but have vital social and cultural value?

The Government of course recognise the points that the noble Baroness makes, but it is also important that students are really well informed and understand the choices they make when they opt for one qualification or another, particularly in relation to the debt that they might take on. That is why we are so keen to encourage degree apprenticeships in the creative industries, for example, because of all the opportunities that offers.

My Lords, among UEA’s alumni of novelists and Nobel laureates was a former colleague of mine. We taught together in the English department of a high school in Newport. Her teaching skills were exceptional, honed by her years studying the arts at UEA. Notwithstanding the Minister’s previous responses, what, if anything, are the Government doing to ensure that such motivating arts teachers continue to graduate from our universities and thus inspire a love of the arts in our children and young people?

A love of the arts can come from many sources—importantly from universities and schools but also from wider cultural experiences. As the noble Baroness knows, we are committed to the bursaries that we are putting in to support particularly the modern foreign language teachers that were referred to but also our wider commitment to the creative industries in this country.

Does the noble Baroness agree with me—I am sure she does—that the creative industries in this country generate £109 billion a year and are 5% of our GDP? Does she agree that anything that is done through funding, or through language that attempts to create a false dichotomy between creativity in science and in the arts—or that talks about low value, as opposed to high value—is damaging to creativity as a whole and to our ability, as a country, to produce the innovation and cultural vitality that we need across the whole spectrum, whether it is in the arts or the sciences?

I feel that the noble Baroness and I listen to different bits of what the Government say about this. It was only last month that the Government announced their plans to grow the creative industries from the current £108 billion by a further £50 billion, and a million more jobs by 2030. We are making a major investment in the sector, particularly in performance and screen technology research labs based in Yorkshire, Dundee, Belfast and Buckinghamshire.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a secondary school teacher and head of a design and technology department. According to the Art Now report published by the APPG for Art, Craft and Design in Education, 67% of art and design teachers questioned are thinking of leaving the profession. What are the Government trying to do to stop this entire waste of talent?

The noble Lord asks an important question, and part of this is about being clear about the value we put on those qualifications. As I mentioned in my opening reply, we are introducing a new T-level in this area in 2024 and further apprenticeship opportunities the following year.