Duncan Macmillan: Let's not sacrifice our commitment to art

The poor, the defenceless and the young will pay for the folly of the rich, the greedy and the reckless. That, in a nutshell, appears to be the policy of the Westminster government. But to its great credit, where it has power to do so, the Scottish Government has set its face against making higher education impossibly expensive.

But then, a nationalist government could hardly do otherwise. Universal education is an ideal that Scotland gave the world. For centuries our principal export was educated people. If we no longer make things, we must again market our brains and education.

This attack on higher education has another crazy aspect: the argument that the arts and humanities are economically unproductive and shouldn't have public support. Who, apart from the maddest Benthamite Utilitarian, would say that economic production is the sum of human happiness? Even sociologists are coming round to Burns's view that wealth alone is no route to happiness:

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It's no in wealth like Lon'on bank, To purchase peace and rest

If happiness hae not her seat, An' centre in the breast

Nevertheless, the contribution the humanities make to our economic well-being, as well as to our less material needs, is beyond question. I am writing on an Apple computer, listening to music on my I-Pod. Designed by Jonathan Ive, graduate in art and design from Newcastle Polytechnic, both masterpieces of modern design have made Apple a market-leader.

When Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) was created from the old Trustees Academy, the city took it under its wing enthusiastically because they saw the value of that kind of practical skill. "The (economic) needs of the district served by the College will be carefully kept in view," declared the first prospectus. This argument is critical when the survival of one of Scotland's two independent art schools is at stake. ECA proposes to merge with Edinburgh University. Whether or not it does rests with education minister Michael Russell.

He tells me the Scottish Funding Ccouncil (SFC) has not yet reported to him and assures me he still has an open mind. When the SFC does report, I fear that the recommendation will be for merger. In the public interest, the minister should reject it. They don't need to merge to cooperate as they have done very successfully for more than a century.

The merger is being pursued in an atmosphere of financial crisis, although that is itself no grounds for it. There seem to be conflicting views about the real financial position of the college, however, and what the real cost of a merger would be. There is also the college's immensely valuable Andrew Grant Bequest. Could that survive a transfer of assets to the University? It would surely be in the public interest to get properly audited accounts of the college's financial position and independent estimates of the real cost of merger.

The two institutions are very different.Individuality and unorthodox thinking are the college's educational goals. We need that cultivated unorthodoxy, not just for the art it produces, but as a leaven in our education system. It would scarcely survive absorption into the University's exam-based system whose origins lie in the Mandarin bureaucracy of the Chinese Empire. When the modern college was created, its godparents were Patrick Geddes and the great arts and crafts architect, Sir Robert Lorimer. They shaped the institution according to their ideals. Geddes's motto was Vivendo Docemus; by living we learn. Offer students experience, not precept; teachers should not indoctrinate, but lead in the exploration of a practical discipline. We have lost our independent banks to greed and folly. Will the SNP preside over the loss of one of our two surviving independent art schools and the values they enshrine, values that not only enhance our lives, but will help us compete in the harsh economic climate we now face? Scotland once prided itself on having four universities when England had only two. We now have two independent art schools where England really has only one, the Royal College. Let's keep the edge that gives us.