Boosting prosperity and solving challenges is not all about STEM

The latest A-level data show concerning long-term trends in the popularity of humanities subjects, says Julia Black

August 26, 2022
A humanities sign on a university building
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In a challenging political climate for SHAPE subjects (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy/environment), last week’s A-level data were an important barometer of how robust the attraction of these subjects remains.

The picture revealed is mixed. It is encouraging to see increases in the uptake of many social sciences: the cohorts studying political studies, psychology and business studies have all grown by more than 10 per cent from last year. There is also promising growth in law and economics.

But for some humanities, the patterns are concerning. French and German remain in a long-term decline that the British Academy has produced recommendations on how to address. The “other modern languages” category, which includes strategically important languages such as Arabic, Urdu and Mandarin, is also down – although data suggest an increase in uptake at GCSE level. Results from Scottish Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications reveal a similar picture north of the border.

More familiar from the headlines is the 9 per cent decline in English literature A-level study. It is particularly sobering that English no longer appears in the top 10 most studied subjects, where it has consistently been for decades. The British Academy’s forthcoming report on the health of English studies will examine this trend further.

Our new SHAPE Observatory is producing data-driven analysis on the health of our disciplines at both system and subject levels. Our goal is to create a live evidence base for sector professionals and policymakers who, like us, are committed to speaking up for these subjects. 

We now have 10 years of data on uncapped university places since the coalition government’s reforms of English higher education in 2012. It is welcome news that more students are going to university than ever before, but it is not simply a numbers game: financial sustainability is critical – both of institutions and disciplines. Students have become unevenly distributed, and with the current downward trajectory of take-up in some SHAPE subjects, we are concerned that we will end up with loss of provision in certain geographical areas, and an overall weakening of the research base.

What can be done to secure a strong future across all the SHAPE disciplines in higher education? Above all, it is a matter of value, and values. Speaking recently in The Times, Sir Adrian Smith, my counterpart at the Royal Society, agreed that STEM and SHAPE were in a state of constant interaction. They must remain so if we are to equip the next generation to combat the great challenges we face. Artificial intelligence, climate change, health, poverty, security: these are areas where scientific and technical innovation must be interwoven with a deep understanding of the human condition, history, economic theory, ethics, cultural differences, language and communication.

There are three things that the government might do to achieve this symbiosis.

We recently urged it to recognise the role of SHAPE subjects in delivering on “strategically important” outcomes for students, the economy and society.  While STEM was identified as such in a recent consultation by the Department for Education, the SHAPE disciplines were not. Of current FTSE 100 chief executives, almost 60 per cent studied a SHAPE subject at university: inarguable proof of how far these subjects can take people.

We are also asking policymakers to reconsider the definition of “value” in higher education outcomes, looking beyond starting salaries for graduates. Longer-term data sets show far less disparity in salaries as individuals progress up the career ladder, and policymakers should also consider the long-term value of higher education for students, the economy and society. SHAPE graduates have the skills that all employers value, such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication. These skills help build careers that are resilient to economic shocks and make strong progress up the career ladder over time.

Last, we urge the government to ensure that students hoping to study our subjects are not impacted by a restriction of provision through student number controls. In 2020-21, SHAPE subjects accounted for more than 60 per cent of student enrolments in England; it would be wrong to take steps that would shrink that figure and restrict choice.

In recent months, it has been heartening to see people from all walks of life speaking up for the value of their SHAPE degrees on social media and in the press. From public figures to students, career researchers and higher education staff, the SHAPE community must rally to combat the damaging rhetoric that our disciplines hold less value than those within STEM.

The British Academy will always speak up for our subjects and ensure that they do not lose their lustre for the talented learners and researchers of the future – but we cannot do so alone.

Julia Black is president of the British Academy and strategic director of innovation and professor of law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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