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Making Arts and Humanities matter

  • 15 March 2023
  • By Professor Abigail Woods
  • This guest blog in our series on leadership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education, NCEE, has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Abigail Woods, Pro Vice Chancellor / Head of College of Arts at the University of Lincoln.
  • Tomorrow, HEPI will be publishing a report on a university turnaround and later this month we will be publishing a new paper on the state of the humanities in UK universities.

Things are not getting any easier for the arts and humanities in Higher Education. Each week brings new accusations from politicians, think tanks and a hostile media that our courses are ‘low value’, ‘Mickey mouse’, insufferably woke, and failing our students. Accompanied by the continued banging of the STEM drum, such claims – however spurious – are having real world impacts.

Important counter-narratives do exist, like the British Academy’s SHAPE campaign, and the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre’s research on the value of arts and culture. [Editor: And look out for a new HEPI paper on the topic later this month.] Nevertheless, A-Level entries in these subjects are declining and recurrent government support for university courses has been halved. As the university funding model comes under increasing strain, it is the arts and humanities that are bearing the brunt of restructuring. Once-thriving departments have been decimated, reducing opportunities for study.

What does this mean for those of us who are university executive leaders of arts and humanities? At the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE) Entrepreneurial Leaders programme, I chose to represent my task, as Head of College of Arts in a post-92 university, by the image of an oil tanker changing course. In time, however, I realised that my situation is rather more complicated. I am not only trying to navigate the tanker (my College) towards calmer waters by redirecting its structures and processes and unleashing the creativity of its people; I am also attempting to move the sea around the tanker by making the internal and external environment more appreciative and supportive of our work. 

In addressing this second challenge, of ‘turning the sea around the tanker’, I believe it is crucial to win hearts as well as minds. Clearly the arts and humanities have to pay their way within universities, and quantifying the costs and benefits of culture and heritage does have a role to play in the distribution of public funding. However, a more personal approach is also needed to persuade individuals and communities of what they have to offer. This cannot be achieved simply by asserting their significance because this speaks only to the converted. Rather, we need to demonstrate their wider value, ideally through personal experience. 

The University of Lincoln’s first ever Strategy for Arts, Culture and Heritage represents an important step in that direction. Developed through a co-creative process that raised the profile and confidence of College of Arts academics, it is embedded within the institution’s new strategic plan (Transforming Lives and Communities, 2022-27). It positions the arts as central to the University’s future success – important not only in and of themselves, but also because of their power to help fulfil the University’s vision and mission. The roll-out of this strategy will demonstrate to staff and students from across the University how the arts can enrich all of our lives, while also enhancing our teaching and research, advancing our civic mission, attracting students, and creating a more equitable world. 

We are also working externally to drive public engagement, participation, and regional growth in the arts and creative industries. Initiatives are informed by our location in a region with high levels of deprivation and an under-developed cultural ecology. Incorporating the former Lincoln Performing Arts Centre and the Project Space Plus gallery, our new Lincoln Arts Centre is about to launch. It will offer an inclusive, public-facing programme that will nurture the next generation of artists, and inspire, challenge, and delight diverse audiences. Thanks to levelling up funds, in Spring 2024, we will open a new Creative Hub (the ‘Barbican’) in Lincoln, which will boost innovation, competitiveness and growth in region’s creative industries. We are delighted that these initiatives have been recognised by the Arts Council England, through an invitation to join its prestigious National Portfolio of Organisations. 

Clearly there is a long way to go before the arts and humanities achieve a really secure footing, and we must be braced for further challenges. However, at the University of Lincoln there is good reason for optimism in the solid foundations that we have built for demonstrating the significance of our cultural and creative work within the University and beyond.  

1 comment

  1. Of course, arts and humanities are under similar pressures in schools with the emphasis on STEM and the growth of so many subjects in recent decades – Economics, Business Studies, Psychology etc. And, of course, this, in turn, has an impact on those applying to university in these subjects: universities are at the end of an increasingly narrow pipeline and, worse than all of that, is the decline in languages, at schools and then at universities, which used to be at the very heart of arts and humanities. That is a critical issue, too.

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