Science in defence of the arts.

Science or art? (Image courtesy of the BBC)

Universities are facing hard times ahead. The free market policies put in place by the former Labour government have been taken to the extreme by the current Conservative-led coalition and these are going some way to ensuring that our higher education system, one of the oldest and most respected in the world, is to be transformed into a market-driven, privatised and competitive corporate entity, concerned only with marketing innovation, management culture, performance targets and profit. The coalition has cut government funding of universities, preferring instead to let students pick up the slack via an extortionate increase in tuition fees. According to Times Higher Education these are currently standing at an average of £8,500 a year for a student starting a university course in England in 2012/13, up from £3,375 for a student starting this year.

Comparatively, the sciences have got off relatively easy. Make no mistake, the cuts to science in both the private and public sectors will still be deep and university students will have to fork out more money than ever before to enrol on the same science courses that used to be free to students in the past, including to the members of this current government. Universities are also well aware that science courses are often more costly to run with laboratory requirements, equipment and technicians to fund. It is too early to tell as to whether the cuts will affect enrolment on science courses or not. We can however take some solace in the fact that the government has pledged a further £100 million to science institutions, one of which is in Norwich, with an emphasis on space technologies and physics. Still, this is a trifling amount in comparison to the £200 million earmarked to repair potholes, for example.

The arts have not been so lucky. The UK Film and Television Council has been axed completely, and The Arts Council is facing cuts of 30%, equivalent to £100 million. Local theatres have been hit hard, and the continued funding of many of the UK’s local orchestras are being called into question. The arts and social sciences are often the first to go at universities during times of hardship, especially at research driven institutions where original publications in respected science journals like Nature or Science can bring in large amounts of revenue compared with equivalent research in the leading journals in the social sciences, but also because of the unfair reputation of the arts subjects as ‘soft’ and with little potential for further progression from continued research and fewer prospects for relevant jobs. It is claimed that all university departments would have to have been hit equally hard and unfairly by these cuts, but it is now obvious that in true Tory style the government considers some subjects to be more equal than others.

What is higher education and society without the arts? What satisfaction can we extract from a lifetime devoid of the wonders of art, magic of cinema or theatre and insights of history? The arts are the glue that acts to bind our modern, multicultural communities, as they go beyond language and cultural barriers to provide an innate sense of wonder, enjoyment and relaxation. They mould our national cultural identity and provide us and future generations with a snapshot of the present that will one day act as an insight into the past. They tell a story that appeals to our basic, core emotions – fear, jubilation, hatred and love. They reunite us with our past, our ancestors and distant relatives, their world and mistakes and they excite our imagination to consider the impossible. Powerful national art, film and theatre swells our national pride beyond the ideologically shallow primitiveness of flag-waving patriotism.

More and more, the divide between the sciences and art is becoming blurred. Art is now science, science now art. We are beginning to understand the science behind the effect that that art has on people, but we have much more to learn. There is a temptation for scientists to become focussed to the objectivity of our existence, preoccupied with the indifference of the universe and its beautiful but inherently physical laws. Art is important for scientists because it is so markedly different in some aspects – how and where it is carried out and the conventions and rationale behind it all, but it is also remarkably similar too. Both subjects serve to push the boundaries of our knowledge and perception, providing us with novel and unique ways of viewing the world and our conscious perception of it.

A call to arms should be ringing out over all university campuses across England, a call to unite in defence of our higher education system and in particular the arts, and that rallying cry should be led at the forefront by scientists.

Hodie mihi, cras tibi – Today for me, tomorrow for thee.

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