Arts and humanities well worth it

This week the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) have published a report on the economic, social and cultural impact of their work.  The AHRC fund many research projects and have a huge impact on the arts and humanities in the UK – not just those they fund, but also as a kind of cultural advocate.

Last year, DIUS said it would be interested to see a report on the economic impact of the arts and humanities, and the AHRC have produced this largely to justify why they deserve the public money they receive (and why they need more of it, too). There is a strong emphasis on the impact of the arts and humanities outside the universities, which is good to see, as it does feel that such subject areas are called upon to defend themselves more than the sciences.

The report says that “Arts and humanities research can make an enormous
contribution to the economic prosperity and social fabric of the UK” and, whilst accepting that there is no formal or traditional method to measure the impact of the field, clearly sets out how it proceeded to do this. In a way, it is a shame that any genuine academic area finds itself in a beleaguered position that requires this kind of defence in our statistics society, but it happens, and all the UK research councils are required to do this.

The findings of the report suggests that arts and humanities subjects outperform sciences in research output, and that they did better than other areas in the Research Assessment Exercise, too. Whether these advantages will be turned to financial advantage for the sector seems dubious in light of the current economic situation, but if nothing else it makes me feel the UK isn’t a bad place to be researching at the moment!

You can read the report online here, or there’s a good summary on the Times Higher Education website here.


  1. It is a pity that everything seems to require an economic justification these days. I fear for the arts and humanities, and even for theoretical science, now that universities have been placed under the Business department following the latest cabinet reshuffle. The media were so busy focusing on whether or not the PM would stay in office that no one outside the HE sector seems to have paid much attention to this change. By one interpretation it was simply a way of giving greater power to Lord Mandelson, one of the “big hitters” in the Cabinet, but there was probably more to it than that. It could reflect this government’s abiding belief (recall, for example, Charles Clarke’s comments about ancient history) that things like higher education can only be justified if they can generate “spin-off” benefits for the “real economy”. Let’s not forget, it is not so long ago that the rather Orwelllian-sounding department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was the plain old Department of Trade and Industry. Not the sort of place one imagines to be terribly at home with philosophy, literature, the visual arts or even cosmology for that matter?

    When I heard about the departmental change I wondered if less than two decades after a previous government turned all the polytechnics into universities we were now on the verge of seeing a sort of reverse process that turns all the universities into vocationally-oriented institutions?

    Not so long ago it seemed our masters wanted us all to work in the city, and what a spectacular success that turned out to be. Now it seems we are all encouraged to become “entrepreneurs” in the hope that our little start-ups will create the great money-spinning enterprises of tomorrow, but I can’t help thinking that the true entrepreneurial innovators are more likely to be born rather than bred by the education system.

    I should probably watch what I am saying since I work for an agency that fell under the BERR remit even before the reshuffle. Then again I’m at such a low level (that’s what a first class History degree does for you) it probably doesn’t matter what I say! If you detect a hint of sour grapes, then you would be probably be right. Even though it is now many years since I graduated, my continuing sense of frustration, if not down-right disillusionment, with the “real world” only makes me treasure my educational experience all the more. It saddens me that my successors are being forced not only to put up with, but to pay for, something that if not inferior at least appears less inspiring. Charles Darwin may have derived precious little from his formal study at Cambridge, when it was in large part a finishing school for the upper middle class, but at least when Oxford and Cambridge existed primarily to train clergy for the established church they were institutions that looked beyond quotidian concerns to something bigger than a balance sheet.

    Like American students have been for so long, I fear our undergraduates today can never take their eye off what they need to do to secure later success in the rat race. In my final year as an undergraduate I was taught by a visiting professor from the States who found our seminar contributions enlivening and soul-restoring by contrast with his charges back home who were just focused on getting into Law School. Where he to return now I think he would be very disappointed.

    Incidentally, you may be interested to hear that a few years ago when I applied unsuccessfully for an administrative post at a university in the north of England, my post-interview feedback highlighted the panel’s concern that I had far too idealistic an impression of the role and purpose of higher education. That says a lot I think.

  2. Thanks for your comment – I agree with much of what you say. Certainly when DIUS was established I felt that it might be a positive sign that we were overseen by a department that at least had the word “universities” in the title; now, “Business, Innovation and Skills” worries me, because I suspect that these three things are what universities are expected to provide, with their wider purposes falling by the wayside.
    I think that people need to remain idealistic about higher education because particularly people within the system need to maintain their principles about it, or we really will have problems.

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