Next generation of humanities scholars ‘imperilled’ by PhD cuts

Arts and Humanities Research Council funding ‘has been some sort of oasis, but it too is now quickly drying up’

September 22, 2023
A Street entertainer lays down on a bed of nails to illustrate Next generation of humanities scholars ‘imperilled’ by PhD cuts
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Plans by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to slash its PhD studentships by almost a third have been described as “devastating news” for the future of humanities research by sector leaders, who warned that they had severe concerns about how the next generation of scholars in the field would be supported.

Under major changes to its doctoral provision announced on 20 September, the AHRC said it would cut the number of PhDs it funds from 425 to 300 per year by 2029-30, a 29 per cent reduction.

The cuts follow a substantial decrease in the AHRC’s operating budget this year, caused primarily by the loss of about £9 million related to non-core income streams. The research council will also need to fund a higher PhD stipend, which UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) raised by 5 per cent to £18,622 for 2023-24, having increased it the previous year by 10 per cent.

The cuts will fall mainly within the AHRC’s doctoral training partnerships (DTPs), with extra resources allocated to maintain PhD numbers in collaborative doctoral partnerships (CDPs), in which museums and libraries work with universities to train PhD students.

Jonathan Cross, director of the University of Oxford’s Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities, described the announcement as “devastating news for the future of the humanities”.

“In my university, I see so many applications for doctoral places from outstanding candidates proposing necessary projects that are both intellectually rigorous and engaged with the world – but the funding landscape is so barren that few of them are in a position to take up those places. It’s a desperate situation,” said Professor Cross. “The AHRC has been some sort of oasis, but it too is now quickly drying up.”

The “brutal cuts” had arrived “in a context where the arts and humanities appear to be under threat from many quarters”, continued Professor Cross, who cited “falling numbers of students in UK schools taking performing arts subjects and modern languages, the recent attack by the education secretary on so-called ‘low-value degrees’ and the closure of many university courses predominantly in the arts and humanities”.

“Where will the next generations of scholars in the humanities come from?” asked Professor Cross. “We need to continue training the best minds in the humanities. But if the AHRC won’t fund them, then who will?”

Andrew McCrae, dean of postgraduate research at the University of Exeter, said the “impact on the core business of arts and humanities research in the DTPs is very worrying”.

“Some cohorts are going to be stretched very thin, and gaps in traditional areas of strength are almost inevitable,” said Professor McCrae.

However, he welcomed the council’s efforts to protect PhD training in CDPs and the reintroduction of centres of doctoral training focused on the creative economy and environmental issues, given the “context of constraint”.

Alison Phipps, professor of languages and intercultural studies at the University of Glasgow, was more sceptical about the emphasis on creative economy-linked PhDs.

“The reductions appear to be focused on instrumentalising the arts for economic development,” said Professor Phipps. “This is reductionist and a fundamental negation of the power of the arts and humanities to generate life worth living beyond simple health and economic interests.”

Such cuts are “no longer surprising” in light of the move in March 2021 to cut in-year funding for research projects supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund, which, she said, had “ruined a vital programme of early career capacity-building globally”.

Announcing the changes, Christopher Smith, the AHRC’s executive chair, acknowledged that the plans would be “a major change for many institutions, and it is not a decision that we have taken lightly”.

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