Reforms pose danger, but arts and humanities should prosper

The “huge risks” that are being taken with the future of the higher education sector have been highlighted in a critical review by the president of the British Academy.

July 23, 2011

Speaking on 21 July at the academy’s annual general meeting, Sir Adam Roberts picked apart the recent White Paper and its implications for the sector, looking in particular at the likely impact on the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The government’s strategy document, he said, had failed to set out a vision for higher education, focusing instead on resolving issues raised by reforms already implemented.

“It used to be the case that a White Paper appeared first, laying out a vision and issues and options, to be followed by radical changes. Here, however, it looks as if we have had the radical decisions first, driven by financial pressure, with a White Paper appearing subsequently…Along the way, the big picture has perhaps been lost from sight.”

Sir Adam said that there were “surely huge risks in the scale and pace of change”.

But he rejected the idea that the arts and humanities had been unfairly targeted by the cut to teaching funding, which removed their entire public subsidy.

Rather, he said, “the changes apply to all disciplines” and funding for many courses in the humanities and social sciences may actually increase, since they used to get between £6,000 and £7,000 per student, but from 2012-13 will receive up to £9,000.

“Provided student demand keeps up (and there were 200,000 unsuccessful applicants last year), humanities and social science courses will be more profitable than others, and increasingly desirable as offerings,” Sir Adam said.

He added that the decision to lift the recruitment cap for students with A level grades of AAB or better could also work in the disciplines’ favour.

In 2009-10, 25 per cent of entrants to humanities and social sciences degrees had AAB or better, compared to just 17 per cent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Despite this optimism, he said the reforms had “serious implications”, particularly for already vulnerable subjects such as modern languages, which he warned could be placed under further pressure.

Sir Adam also spoke scathingly of the government’s failure to address concerns about postgraduate funding, a “dangerous” issue that he said he had raised repeatedly.

“It worries me that I have to keep re-stating it…If this issue is not satisfactorily addressed, the future renewal of the academic profession could be seriously put at risk.”

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