Talk of humanities crisis ‘overblown’, UK sector leaders say

Export-strength research and employer demand make a case for optimism in liberal arts subjects, Hepi report finds

March 30, 2023
Giant hedgehog animal mural  in Shoreditch. East London, to illustrate Humanities’ crisis ‘overblown’, UK sector leaders say
Source: Getty

UK politicians may steer school-leavers towards STEM courses, but talk of a “crisis” in the humanities is overstated, according to a report by senior leaders at mainly Russell Group universities.

In 2020, UK arts and humanities research activity was 49 per cent higher than the global average, meaning that it “outperformed all other disciplinary research areas in the UK”, while “eight of the ten fastest growing sectors employ more [arts, humanities and social sciences] graduates than other disciplines”, says the report for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

Summarising the review, lead author Marion Thain, executive dean for arts and humanities at King’s College London, described such disciplines as “one of this country’s most distinctive and potent academic strengths”.

Why, then, do some politicians dismiss them as a waste of time?

“I don’t know how many people actually believe this, particularly when you see how many prominent and influential figures in the UK have humanities degrees,” she told Times Higher Education.

“The humanities give a range of skills and methods that are vital to society’s ability to respond effectively, imaginatively and innovatively to some of the most pressing problems we are facing. Also, those degrees offer some of the greatest flexibility for what are often, these days, long and varied careers,” she added.

The Hepi report, The Humanities in the UK Today: What’s Going On, noted that while talk of a crisis was overblown, traditional humanities courses such as modern languages and English have lost out to other areas, in part because of changes in secondary school course offerings, and had not grown as quickly as others since 1992.

It noted that humanities departments outside the elite had seen “significant” drops in student recruitment, while those in the Russell Group have grown overall, particularly in the first years after tuition fees rose and student number caps were scrapped in England.

The recruitment shift towards the Russell Group was driven by many factors, Professor Thain said, with changes in A-level grading during the pandemic “a key one in recent years”.

A hopeful route to boosting recruitment is the growth in US-style liberal arts programmes at UK universities in the past few years. A more interdisciplinary approach to teaching humanities is in vogue in the Russell Group and beyond, the report authors note, citing a survey of promotional material that found that such offers were pitched as “engaged, outward-looking and connected to external organisations and local areas”.

While a UK “crisis” in the humanities may have been overstated, in the US declines have been severe, with the authors citing higher tuition fees among the factors driving students towards STEM subjects – which applicants responding to “media-generated perceptions” believe will give them a better return on their investment.

Should UK universities, therefore, be wary of following the liberal arts route? “I don’t think so,” said Professor Thain. “Students understand the power of bringing different disciplinary perspectives together; this is a growth area.”

The report’s authors conclude that the UK’s strength in humanities gives it an “unparalleled opportunity” to “contribute to human prosperity”, including by improving connections to STEM subjects and continuing with the growing emphasis on addressing social challenges.

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Reader's comments (1)

How can this so-called "report" ignore enrollments, number of majors or concentrators, graduate enrollments, and job opportunities? do they not even read Times Higher Education? This is unconscionable and unprofessional, and thoroughly unscholarly