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State of the arts


In light of Nigel Farage’s recent revelation that he would waive all university fees for students studying STEM subjects, Sophie Harrison, Online Books Editor and English Literature students considers the impact this would have upon university students, graduate career prospects and the value of the arts.

The new portrait gallery of Higher Education has been unveiled, and some of its former masterpieces have come under hard times – for starters, you’d be lucky to see so much as a painted moustache of Mr Charles Dickens. This is 2015, and ‘Art’ has been usurped by a more exact science. The portrait of Humanities hangs, abandoned, in a bleak house.

Or so is the world according to Nigel Farage. Last month, talking on BBC 5 Live, the UKIP leader revealed that he would waive all university fees for students studying STEM subjects. To those who struggle with acronyms: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. If dire job prospects were not enough to send students fleeing from the house of humanities, perhaps a difference of £27,000 will tip them over the edge.

If I were to go back two years, knowing that the choice I make could be a financial difference of that scale, would I reconsider? Very possibly, yes. Moreover, I am sure I would not be the only one. If we are going to look at it all scientifically, the term Survival Of The Fittest definitely rings true. In this context, poor old Dickens’ beard has not a patch on Darwin. And so, very possibly, the musicians become the mathematicians.

To avoid a biased argument, I do understand the logistics. I will be the first to say that my chosen degree (English Literature) does not scream “employ me!” There is a higher economic and social need for more medics, more engineers, more technologists. Yet, specifically, there is a need for motivated medics, stimulated engineers and inspired technologists. I do not possess a naturally scientific brain. I am, by no means, incompetent; I secured strong GCSEs for science and maths, in some subjects performing – on paper – stronger than those who pursued them to a higher level. When you are at school, aptitude can produce results. Yet higher education requires more than ability.

Going with your head is important, but University dropout rates are already very high in this country, notably with STEM subjects. The Complete University Guide recorded the highest two dropout rates for Computer Science (12.2 per cent) and Engineering (9.1 per cent). Moreover, in a statistic that would see Darwin’s own theory turn against him, Biological Sciences follow closely behind (7.7 per cent). In contrast, two of the lowest dropout rates were found in History (3.9 per cent) and Languages (4.1 per cent) – the latter surprised me, given the rigorous nature of such a degree.

These statistics evidence the realities of a science-based degree; with significantly higher contact hours, and the demanding content itself, you have to be dedicated. Yet a huge financial disparity, between Arts and Science, could see a more apathetic cohort of students enter a degree in the latter; they are, thereby, less likely to see their University career through to the end. Skill and passion are interlinked. In 2014’s annual report by the Institute of Engineering and Technology, 44 per cent of surveyed companies said that new graduate recruits did not meet the expected skill levels. Increased pressure to pursue a STEM degree course would exacerbate this issue; waiving fees subjectively is, in effect, bribery to follow a certain educational path.

Now for the second logistical crux. Let us hypothesise that UKIP obtained power, and this policy was enacted. Suddenly the number of students studying STEM subjects accelerates. Three, four, five years down the line – if they haven’t dropped out – they graduate and enter the marketplace. What marketplace would this be? Potentially, one where supply outstrips demand.

Students should be passionate about their subject, passion and skill are interlinked – Image: U.S. Army RDECOM via Flickr cc

Only last year, a statement by the British Medical Association warned “some UK medical graduates may not secure a Foundation Programme place; thus, they will not be able to register as a doctor”. This is supported by another assertion made by Dr Ben Molyneux, deputy chairman of the Junior Doctors Committee that “even the optimistic projections are that hundreds of [medical] graduates could be without a foundation place… the worse case projections are up to 1,000.”

My concluding practical argument can be surmised in four words. Lib Dems: Tuition Fees. Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science & Cities remarked, that “implausible spending commitments like these are a risk to our economic security and would lead to more borrowing”. Farage may have trumped Nick in a TV debate last year, but this claim to waive tuition fees doesn’t really give him a (C)legg to stand on.

My final objection is based more on principle than practicality. I understand I cannot heal bodies with lyrical ballads. However, if is my study of these ballads, which in part funds the study for prodigal scientists, I would at least appreciate having my annual £300 booklist paid for. In the present situation, the fees paid by Arts students are not being reimbursed through their degree; it is subsidising the Sciences, with their need for greater material and human resources.

Perhaps I am being too expectant. After all, with a grand 6.5 contact hours a week, I’ve practically secured a Monet for a tenner. Then there is the essay hand-back; after hours scouring JSTOR, googling MLA (More Life Agony) citation rules, trying to argue that a tree is not a tree, and the result? A number (shock horror) and three sentences of feedback. Some tutors are brilliant, and give coherently typed out responses. Then there are those who scrawl down one abstract point, in barely legible handwriting, complete with tipex. Nine grand. For that I now expect a lifetime supply of my own tipex pens. The devices my schoolteachers swore off as “sloppy”. Evidently, University affords more artistic licence.

Arts students should not be treated as second-class citizens. A STEM degree does not instantly make you superior. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all have many things in common, but an all-expenses-paid Harvard degree is not one of them. They were innovators, not dissimilar to Plato, Picasso, Raphael, Rowling… The state of the arts isn’t quite so bleak from atop the Hogwarts Astronomy tower. Sciences matter, but the Arts matter too. In cultural and financial terms.

For Farage, stats may be the new Steinbeck – the only high-ticket items in the degree gallery – but I think this is a grave oversight, both in theory and action.

Oh the humanities…

Sophie Harrison, Online Books Editor

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