The value of humanities
Throughout its 900-year history, Oxford University has survived the Bubonic Plague, the English Civil War, and a host of other maladies. Oxford Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton takes solace in the University’s resilient history as he grapples with the decision by the UK coalition to slash funding for higher education by 80%:
[The budget cuts] are pretty bad. The challenge for us obviously is the speed with which we have to confront the issues that result from them… One of the proposals that has been recently passed by government in the UK is to allow the cost of undergraduate education charged to students to rise. And again, that is happening in a very short period of time. Changes of this significant kind–I think we would all much prefer to be able to manage the cuts and manage any rise in tuition fees that will occur over a longer period, but we’re not being given that luxury. We’re going to have to manage them over a very short period of time, as little as two or three years. And that is going to be quite the challenge.
In an interview with Chrystia at Davos last week, when asked how large the tuition increase would be at Oxford next year, Hamilton said diplomatically that “Oxford is a place that cherishes consultation and extensive discussion,” and that the decision on the fee level will not be made until the end of March.
The financial crisis, he noted, has accelerated the trend toward impact-driven research projects, but Hamilton was adamant that “research at its heart really does best when it’s driven by curiosity, when it’s driven by looking for answers to fundamental questions, whether those questions are in science or in engineering or even in the humanities and the social sciences.”
When Chrystia pressed him on the value of humanities at a time of economic uncertainty, he said, “as one looks at world leaders, many of the world leaders gathered here in Davos, just go and look at their curriculum vitae and you will see very often they are graduates of humanities subjects.”
Hamilton sounded upbeat about the rise of universities across the developing world, notably those in China. Although he does not envision Oxford being eclipsed any time soon, he did warn against complacency:
Even 900-year-old universities like Oxford — we cannot be complacent because there are universities — yes, in China — but also we can begin to see growing strength in India and throughout the world, and universities like Oxford need to watch out.
Posted by Peter Rudegeair.