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Higher Education: Arts and Humanities

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following recent announcements of proposed university staff cuts, what steps they are taking to support the study of the arts and humanities in higher education.

My Lords, we recognise the importance of the creative and performing arts to our economy. While some higher education providers have seen decreases in arts and humanities staff, academic staff numbers across England rose by 1.9% between 2019-20 and 2022-23 to 21,640.

My Lords, Gillian Keegan’s freezing of further funding for creative arts courses at universities, which has occurred since I tabled this Question, is surely pouring oil on already extremely troubled waters. We have a Government who seem wilfully blind to both the current threat to the arts at universities and the strategic importance of that pipeline. Will they reconsider that funding decision and take steps to protect the jobs and departments at Goldsmiths, Middlesex, Kent and elsewhere that are so necessary for the creative and economic future of this country?

We absolutely agree with the noble Earl that high-quality provision across a range of subjects in the arts and humanities is critical both for our cultural enrichment as a society and for our workforce. That is why we require the Office for Students to at least maintain funding for those high-cost subjects at the current level of £16.7 million. As the noble Earl is also aware, we have dedicated funding for both our world-leading cultural institutions and other performing arts institutions.

My Lords, the cap on student fees has meant that funding for students is at its lowest level in over 25 years. There is a £1 billion hole in domestic teaching funding, which will inevitably mean some very difficult decisions, as my noble friend indicated. Does the Minister agree that arts and humanities graduates have the creative and critical thinking essential for problem solving, which will be crucial to support businesses to get the most out of AI tools?

As the noble Baroness knows, the Government strive to create a sustainable student finance system that both remains responsive to the needs of the wider economy and of the labour market, which she referred to, and is fair to students and taxpayers. As she remarked, those with creative and critical-thinking skills in relation to AI are of course important, but so are students with STEM skills.

My Lords, ahead of the local and mayoral elections tomorrow, would my noble friend the Minister say what the impact of slashing the graduate route will be on arts and humanities provision, as well as on the levelling- up agenda? I am thinking specifically about towns such as Middlesbrough and Darlington, where every intake of international students at Teesside University brings £240 million of benefits each year to the local economy.

My noble friend is aware that we remain absolutely committed to our international education strategy, which has been extremely successful in terms of both the number of students who study in this country and their contribution to the economy. I cannot comment on the specifics of individual towns, but we absolutely recognise the value that those students bring.

My Lords, the Minister quite rightly pointed out the importance of the arts to our cultural and creative industries, but they are also important to soft power. We are seeing 15 universities making job cuts in their arts and humanities departments and 35 others considering it. I do not need to go through the individual universities, but drama, film, music, dance and entire theatre departments are at risk. Two problems need to be addressed. The first is funding, if we want to keep these creative and humanities subjects at such a high level. The second is the pipeflow. We have talked about the EBacc before, but would the Minister now care to consider what damage it is doing and the danger it poses to the pipeflow to our university and FE sector?

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I really do not follow the logic of how the EBacc is damaging the flow to our universities. Humanities and modern foreign languages are absolutely central and at the heart of the EBacc, but we are building on that with our higher technical qualifications and T-levels in areas such art and design, which will be introduced this year. I remind the House that bursaries and scholarships for, say, modern foreign language teachers are at the same level as for physics teachers.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be crazy to restrict entry from overseas students to particular universities or particular faculties or courses within those universities, not least because it would say that all the rest were perfectly okay for our daughters and sons but were not good enough for overseas students?

I am not aware that that plan has currently been proposed. Where we have concerns about quality, they are about courses rather than subject areas at individual institutions, where the outcomes for those students, whether they are international or domestic, are significantly poorer than for the same course at another institution.

My Lords, almost every armed conflict in the world at present has a religious dimension, making informed and respectful dialogue increasingly critical for international peace and security. In that context, the steady decline in the numbers of those studying religion, theology and ethics in our higher education institutions is a cause for real concern. Given the dearth of graduates in these subjects at present, can the Minister tell us how the Government will nurture the necessary religious literacy of our public life in the coming years?

This is a very important subject and, I may say, goes wider in terms of critical thinking and understanding the information that we receive both in reality and online. I do not have the specific figures for religious studies on their own, but historical, philosophical and religious studies have declined over the last three years, as the right reverend Prelate said, but only by 5%. Multiple issues impact on that, but I think we also see young people seeking debate, and the moves that we have made as a Government on free speech within our universities are critical to underpinning that.

My Lords, the Government indicated that they would publish a cultural education plan by the end of last year, but they have given no commitment on a date for publishing. If they are keen, as we are, to put creativity at the heart of education, can they now give us a timeline for the publication of the plan?

I am unable to give the noble Baroness a precise timeline, but the Government have already acted on cultural and creative education, for example through our investment in the institutes of technology: all 21 of these will be open by this autumn and seven are already working directly with creative, film and entertainment industries, addressing just the sort of cultural and creative jobs that I know the noble Baroness aspires to.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a graduate in classics, or literae humaniores as they were called at Oxford. Studying classics can open doors to a vast range of knowledge and experience, including language learning; grammar and vocabulary; literature and history; scientific, botanical and medical terminology; arts, architecture and sculpture, so much of which is based on classical themes and models, as is classical music; and logical thinking, which is so important to digital technologies and coding and to other fields of activity. So what steps are the Government taking to promote and enhance continued teaching of classical subjects at university?

The noble Lord will be aware that the Government do not impose in any way on universities what subjects they should teach. The noble Lord has done a most marvellous marketing pitch for classics; I expect to see applications rise in response this autumn. But it is up to individual universities to decide. In schools, we have been encouraging the greater teaching of Latin, and certainly that is much appreciated by those students who benefit.