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Oscar Edmondson asks whether or not arts degrees are “second best” to science courses.

Two of Bristol’s greatest attractions are its fantastic architecture and rich history of tradition: nothing shows this better than the Wills Memorial Building. The Fresher’s Welcome Ceremony last week acted as a chance to show the building off in all its glory, as heads of department and assorted robed men walked in procession to an organ accompaniment. It was an occasion where even to clap would break the mood.

It’s also an event where it is easy to forget all the uncertainties about university. I had been told multiple times that my BA in History couldn’t stand up to the more employable Sciences or the more impressive Law degrees – to the point where my UCAS was filled out with Avenue Q’s ‘What do you do with a BA in English?’  playing unremittingly in the back of my mind. However, sat in organised rows of like-minded Arts, Humanities and Languages students and flanked by the portraits of the remarkable past chancellors of the university, it is easy to cast these doubts aside. Uncertainty is replaced by excitement and the feeling that the university is yours is an affirming one.

‘I had been told multiple times that my BA in History couldn’t stand up to the more employable Sciences or the more impressive Law degrees’

No sooner had I settled myself into this epiphany, the echoing of the organs was replaced by a frantic whir… a fire alarm. * sighs *

Although, of course, someone accidently leaning on the fire alarm can’t be helped, it caused my doubts to resurface. I somehow found it hard to imagine the same thing happening during a welcome talk for the Medics, or the Engineers. I had seen medical students suited and booted heading into the Memorial Building and then allowed to leave leisurely and via the front door, rather than in an ‘orderly fashion’ and through the fire exit. It left me feeling fairly down about the position of my subject within the university.

This, in turn, fed my wider fear that, in comparison to the Sciences, Medicine and Law, Arts subjects and their tributaries were significantly less well funded as a result of not being held in equal regard by universities. I had been on open days all around the country where they would boast new facilities for these courses. Bristol is guilty also, with the newly completed Life Sciences building dominated Tyndall Avenue at a cost of £54 million as well as £34 million worth of improvements to the Maths facilities with renovations the the Fry Building and the Law assets with £8 million investment at Berkley Square.

‘Arts subjects and their tributaries were significantly less well funded as a result of not being held in equal regard by universities.’

I had also read articles in Epigram where George Robb hit upon the revelation that ‘Arts students pay for Science degrees’ (November 2014). In the article Robb states that the university spends only £3,347.14 per arts student, leaving over half on the £9,250 to be allocated to other departments. This collates to £10 million net profit for the university that can be used on other projects such as the building of new facilities. Despite this, Arts don’t seem to benefit and only serve to subsidise the more expensive courses.

In reality however, it is not the fault of the university that Arts subjects haven’t seen the benefits of increased university funding. Instead, it is past government attitude. Gervas Huxley of the Telegraph has discussed this topic further and suggests that ‘for decades, governments have promoted and fully funded science education with a concomitant decline in funding for the arts’. This is true, as in a period of increasing austerity it is the funding for Arts which has had to give. Languages are the best example of the effect of this, as it has seen a 40% drop since 1998 in universities offering specialist language degrees. Even the most subscribed modern language courses such as German and French have seen a drop in course numbers of 26% and 15% respectively.

Even so, Huxley continues to argue that there is a silver lining. The coalition government, whilst failing in its pledge to reduce freeze tuition fees, has made real steps in the funding equality.

‘The coalition government…has made real steps in the funding equality.’

Before 2010, students were categorised into A, B, C and D bands and the relative letter would determine the amount that the university got for each student. The coalition government in 2010 abolished the C (Applied Science) and D (Arts and Humanities) bands and thus the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences have experienced the largest relative increase in funding. These students will now see a much larger percentage of their fees going towards their chosen course. Statistically, this is supported as per capita funding for Arts and Humanities students has jumped to 59%, in comparison to Engineering and Sciences which still sit at 43% meaning that Arts is being treated in the same way that these traditional A and B category courses have been.

There are tangible results of this also with Bristol posting on their website in September 2016 that the new Humanities Hub is now in stage two of its development. Equally, the History department recently employed 8 new staff over the summer taking the total of new recruits to 19 over the past few years. This is part of a real expansion of the Arts resources at the University.

‘the new Humanities Hub is now in stage two of its development.’

Arts students will therefore have to shed the thick skin built up after years of hearing about the decline in the prestige of BA’s, having lectures in Science buildings and standing at cold fire assembly points and realise that they are getting what they want. They may also have to realise that the fire bell could have sounded during any of the Welcome Talks. University funding is increasingly becoming fairer, helping to shape a modern and extensive campus which all subjects can reap the benefits of.


Is there a large divide between Arts and Sciences on campus? Comment, or join the debate on Epigram’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

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