We cannot recover from COVID without the Arts and Humanities

Reverend Professor Philip McCormack, Principal of Spurgeon’s College, shares his thoughts on why the skills of arts and humanities students should be nurtured for society’s emotional and economic recovery post-COVID.

The COVID pandemic has made it more necessary than ever for us to consider what skills we collectively need as a society to be able to address, effectively and humanely, present and future challenges, both domestic and global. While the role of higher education institutions is to help develop the knowledge base and skills which each student chooses to pursue, government has always played a role in setting the direction and tone for what it believes to be the most important skills for young people to develop.

A recent consultation by the Office for Students reported that the Government plans to cut the amount of funding it provides for ‘high cost’ higher education arts subjects in England by up to 50 per cent. This includes Music, Dance, Drama and Performing Arts, Art and Design, Media Studies and Archaeology courses. This is based on the Government’s view that these subjects are not ‘strategic priorities’ – unlike Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), which are considered to be essential subjects providing the most important skills sets to promote the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ and post-COVID recovery agenda.

It would be a mistake, however, for the Government to ignore the vital economic and social benefits provided by students and graduates with Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) studies, particularly as the country begins its recovery from the pandemic. The Government’s upskilling agenda – detailed in its Queen’s Speech and the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill – must include an equally strong focus on promoting both AHSS and STEM subjects, or else risk losing – or at best diluting – the unique knowledge base and skills provided by courses in the creative and humanities subject areas.

At Spurgeon’s College, we are continuing to expand our course range and educational offer against the grain of Government thinking. As part of this expansion, in partnership with Liverpool Hope University, the College will be delivering three new degree courses from September 2021 in Business Management and Marketing, Media and Communication, and Creative Writing, Social Policy and International Relations. We know there is appetite for these subjects within our local area of Croydon and they have been specifically selected in response to local demand. We believe that the students with the skills provided through these subjects and others like them have an essential role to play in developing our cultural life and will be critical for helping to address both contemporary and future social challenges.

The economic value of creative and humanity subjects to the UK is significant. Before the pandemic, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) estimated that the Creative Industries contributed £115.9bn to the UK’s GVA (gross value added) in 2019 – accounting for 5.9% of UK GVA – and that 71.9% of the growth in the DCMS sector since 2010 came through the expansion of the creative industries.

The Arts Council has also estimated that ‘productivity in the arts and culture industry between 2009 and 2016 was greater than that of the economy as a whole, with gross value added per worker at £62,000 for arts and culture, compared to £46,800 for the wider UK economy.’

The arts and culture industry has of course been one of the worst hit sectors during the pandemic. Cutting off funding and support now for young people developing the skills needed by the industry could permanently weaken the UK’s arts and culture offering, as well as diminish the sector’s economic contribution.

Alternatively, an approach which values and maintains funding for AHSS subjects has the potential to revitalise not only the arts and culture sector, but also to make it a driver of the post-COVID recovery. An approach which looks to support subjects that make a strong contribution to culture and society could also help to play an important role in the emotional recovery of our society after the pandemic.

Beyond COVID-19, it is clear that the challenges of the future will require the critical thinking and skills that come through studying AHSS subjects, alongside STEM. The British Academy’s recent report Qualified for the Future has outlined how some of the most pressing future challenges we face, from climate change, pandemics, cybersecurity and international terrorism ‘will need not just technological solutions but the understanding of human behaviour and how to achieve social and cultural change which AHSS can provide.’

Many of the solutions to these challenges will require long-term engagement with the affected communities, and an understanding of different groups’ motivations and decision-making influences. The skills provided by AHSS subjects, such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence, ethical theory and a deeper understanding of the importance of culture, will all be essential components for overcoming these challenges.

At the heart of the debate is also a question about what kind of society we want to live in. The value of arts and humanities to our lives and society at large – value which is created and sustained, in many cases, by those who have studied the creative and humanities subjects at some level – cannot be overstated.

The Arts Council’s evidence review on The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society highlighted the ways in which our artistic, musical and cultural industries contribute to making communities feel safer and stronger, while also helping to reduce social exclusion and individual isolation. Subjects in the humanities, such as Philosophy, Theology and Ethics, have provided the basis for communities and societies for thousands of years. To nurture these subjects, therefore, is to nurture the society which values and encourages them.

Young people who are studying, planning to study or have graduated with AHSS subjects have a vital role to play in our national future. From supporting the recovery of the UK’s creative industries and economic growth to addressing future domestic and global challenges, their unique and powerful contributions cannot be ignored. It is up to the Government to ensure these students and subjects get the support that they need – our society will be undoubtedly better off because of it if they do.

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Reverend Professor Philip McCormack

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Posted 30/06/21

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