The UK’s growing preoccupation with STEM subjects should not come at the expense of the arts – and continued diversity across the economy, says Robert Bruce
This article was first published in the June 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
It’s a paradox of our times that the more the business world asserts that diversity is what makes everything flourish, the more narrow-minded it becomes.
It is partly the effect of the current use of technology. The digital world has concentrated everyone on drilling down narrow routes to the richness of specific information and views. And at the same time, this process, which elsewhere in business would be disparaged as silo vision, becomes the norm.
The internet is the wonder of our times. But its nature encourages people to seek only specifics. The traditional format of a broadsheet newspaper allowed space for the eye to roam and notice entirely unexpected connections.
The internet provides a richness of information and news but it is viewed down a blinkered lens. A worldview that takes in the sheer diversity of what is happening all around us is much harder to achieve. And this is why the eagerly sought culture of diversity, of people and ideas, is so hard to bring to fruition.
People do like to pigeonhole, which is the enemy of diversity. Back they come every time to whichever old cliché they prefer. Years ago, one of the accountancy bodies decided to hold an evening of chamber music in the hope that it might shift outside perceptions of accountants. I asked the chief executive why he had chosen the type of music to be played. ‘Mozart’, he said. ‘Accountants love Mozart. His music is all about maths.’ We were back to the cultural arguments that were prominent in the immediate post-war era. Then, people who wanted to appear progressive insisted that the nation’s sluggish economy could only be reformed if the life scientific could triumph.
A battleground of two cultures was defined. Those with a background in humanities, it was said, held back the thinking of those with a background in science. People with arts degrees wandered lonely as a cloud, whereas those from the rigour of science could take part in what incoming prime minister Harold Wilson in 1964 referred to as ‘the white heat of technology’.
Neither side triumphed. But the arguments continue. And the culture seems unchanged. A great scientist dies and attracts tributes that would rival a demi-god of the rock world. But at the same time most bright folk would say they had never got beyond the first few pages of Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time.
And there is another underlying reason for the disparity that leads to a lack of diversity. Money has come to dominate the popular arguments over what people should study at university. Politicians tend to see what has become known as STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – as where resources should go. And they try to nudge the world in that direction by financial means.
So it comes as no surprise to hear the Creative Industries Federation reporting that last year the entries for GCSEs in creative subjects fell by 47,000. It also becomes a focus for arguments about relative remuneration. Emolument, a consultancy, produces figures that show that a science graduate earns the higher salary at the outset of their post-degree career, but that 15 years down the line the arts graduates have overtaken them.
There is no doubt about the need to encourage diversity as the way to future prosperity. ACCA’s recent report Tenets of good corporate governance makes that plain. The UK is a creative place, a world leader in the arts. The arts is, however you measure it, a huge part of the economy. But the money that floods into the art world, like the recent auctions of the Rockefeller collection, comes from Asia, and a global marketplace. And the embedding of the arts in UK culture is being actively cut back. It still suffers from the rather amorphous image of the arts as somehow not really being an industry. We need to see the whole picture, and then bid a lot of money for it.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist
"Money has come to dominate the popular arguments over what people should study at university "