“The greatest scientists are artists as well”: A response to the RSA

August 12, 2015

Matthew Taylor, the head of the RSA, has written in the Telegraph this morning ahead of A Level results tomorrow. The clickbait headline quote is that students should “stick two fingers up to the Russell Group and go to a university that is creative and innovative and wants to do things differently.” In a later exchange, Matthew has been at pains to emphasise that his point is that simply that A Level students should consider all their options before deciding what to do next.

Even this more nuanced argument is disappointing though. The view that the Russell Group and other traditional universities cannot be ‘creative’ is a false one, as any of Stewart Lee, David Mitchell, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Thom Yorke, Andrew Strauss, Antony Gormley, Norman Foster, Brian May and the cast of the Inbetweeners would tell you. Moreover, to quote Albert Einstein, “the greatest scientists are artists as well”. The advancement of any subject discipline requires innovation and creative thinking. But crucially, to do so also requires a firm factual base in the knowledge of the discipline and of the history of study in that field.

Unfortunately, the accusation that this sort of elite study of knowledge must drive out creativity and innovation and replace it with rote learning and a ‘Gradgrindian’ approaches to facts appears fairly regularly amongst commentators. The only difficulty with it is that it isn’t true. Just as our best schools are almost without exception full of drama clubs, sports teams and after school options, so too are universities maelstroms of activity, where students can access an incredible array of opportunities alongside expert teaching and research in their chosen field. What’s more, data from students in the National Student Experience Survey 2015, run by the Times Higher Education newspaper, show some of the highest levels of satisfaction with the student experience are reported by students at what might be thought of as the most traditional universities.

There is an argument to be made that university isn’t for everyone. Indeed, Policy Exchange is currently researching how to develop a cadre of institutions and qualifications where students can undertake advanced technical and professional study in an environment which is more conducive to this approach than a university may be. But the argument that universities, particularly the Russell Group, stifle creativity certainly isn’t it.

For full disclosure, the Russell Group are one of the partners of the Policy Exchange education team this year

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