Why studying Dickens makes economic sense

In a world that is geared to the creation of wealth, the long-term value of studying the humanities, for the individual and society, must not be overlooked, writes Chris Brown
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Money makes the world go round, or so the saying goes. The romantics among us may scoff at such a notion. There is far more to life than the pursuit of material gain. But the world in which we live is geared in no small part to the creation of wealth, and "the rapacious advance of corporate culture".

The humanities fit rather uneasily into this economically determined world. After all , no discourse on the relative merits of Shakespeare or Dickens is going to make a major dent on a balance sheet.

The traditional ideal of academia is spelt out by Peter Wiseman, professor of classics at Exeter University.

"The main purpose of a degree course is to develop intellectual virtues such as critical thinking. The study of history, literature and language is a good way of doing that. The aim is to produce well-educated citizens with trained minds and flexible attitudes that can adapt to unpredictable demands."

All well and good, and in an ideal world, an aim that students would surely embrace. But the real world is one of student debt, and the battle to secure the funding to study ­ despite the long-term gain that studying the humanities provides.

Susan Bridgeford, faculty officer of the arts and social sciences faculty at the University of Strathclyde believes the study of humanities could be a real growth area. The university offers a range of postgraduate programmes such as linguistics and creative writing, which is becoming especially popular with students."But there is a problem for students in gaining funding. There are various scholarship funds available ­ for example, from the Scottish Office ­ but many of our students are self-funding, and have to study part-time."

Strathclyde, in common with other universities, makes efforts to try to ensure self funding students are not prevented from following courses for financial reasons. For example, it offers a 50 per cent discount on fees for research programmes in humanities subjects for part-time, self-funding students.

Governments, both here and abroad, have recognised over the last decade that universities should be drivers of the economy. Their innovation and research should have "massive potential economic benefits, for business and society as a whole", according to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in a statement last month.

But vice-chancellors have warned of the danger that this poses to the humanities which can be overlooked on these criteria. Colin Lucas, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, warned in February that the humanities have been "excluded from the large infrastructure schemes and have not been noticed in the discourse of public encouragement".

The fear is that subjects such as art, literature, history, music and languages will lose out when it comes to significant funding announcements that will, more often go to departments researching subjects such as computer science or engineering.

Subjects like languages, which have been declining in popularity over the last decade, are not perceived to be one of the engines of the 21st-century economy. This leads to reports like the recent EU-sponsored Eurobarometer, concerning language skills, which placed the UK bottom of the European languages league.

Only 20 per cent of British people could speak any foreign languages. In Sweden, 88 per cent can speak English. This is despite business pointing out that those with language skills are more "marketable".

And yet, as Colin Lucas points out, there is more to the wealth of a society than just pounds and pence. "It is not necessary to make arguments based on the contribution made to national earnings by museums, galleries, theatres and music. Is there not here also the reservoir of human reason and imagination, in which are rooted the instinct and the capacity to innovate? Research concerning the mysteries of the social human-being are also a necessity for the health of our society."

So, there is no need to join a May Day protest march to show the world that you believe that there is more to life than money. If you are prepared to be flexible, and understand that the path to a postgraduate humanities degree is not an easy ride, the personal rewards will make it worthwhile.

At the University of Wales in Swansea, the department of English has tried to create maximum flexibility with its MA courses: English, Diversity of Contemporary Writing, and Modern Welsh Writing in English. Students can choose modules from each course to fulfil the requirements of an MA.

"In the past, we had two specific MA courses, but these were too restrictive for our undergraduates who wanted to continue studying," says Dr Steven Vine, lecturer in English at the University of Wales.

The results clearly vindicate the policy. From a rate of five or six postgraduate students every year, the change in the structure of the courses two years ago means there are around 20 new students every year. And while Dr Vine acknowledges the financial difficulties faced by postgraduates, and the non-vocational nature of the humanities, he is confident of their prospects.

"I am surprised that people do carry on with their studies sometimes," he says. "But those who really do want to study will usually find a way to overcome the debt. And students should know that a humanities degree does not close the doors to a job, as employers are interested in the communication skills that they gain."

Funding applications can be made to the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), www.ahrb.ac.uk