The end is not nigh

Those in the humanities and social sciences must be less paranoid and more precise in identifying threats, argues Adam Roberts

March 3, 2011



Credit: Jason Raish


Up and down the country, teachers and students in the humanities and social sciences feel threatened by the new tuition fees regime, cuts in teaching funding and a general atmosphere of uncertainty. But is this fear justified? Are the real challenges to the humanities and social sciences specific and particular or general and across-the-board?

The signs of a threat are undoubtedly there. In the 2010 election, all three main party manifestos upheld the importance of science; not one mentioned the social sciences and humanities. In October, the Browne Review, in proposing a drastic revision of the financing of higher education, never once mentioned the humanities and social sciences by name.

Lord Browne of Madingley famously recognised that there was "a strong case for additional and targeted investment by the public in certain courses", but when it came to detail, the humanities and social sciences were not there - except in a brief reference to "strategically important language courses", a phrase that combines aggressive utilitarianism and absolute opacity.

Browne's emphasis on the value of university courses as a form of personal investment also offended those who emphasise knowledge as a valuable pursuit in its own right and as contributing to the general social good, in which the humanities and social sciences play a key role.

It is easy to read Browne as implying that these subjects just aren't "strategically important". But government policy appears to be, less threateningly, that these areas are less expensive to provide and therefore don't require "additional and targeted investment", but are otherwise to be treated even-handedly. Consider the evidence.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review, the humanities and social sciences received the same treatment as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects - broadly, a flat cash settlement for the next four years, far higher than plans for almost all other areas of government expenditure. This applies not only to funding administered by the research councils and academies, but also to quality-related funding, which goes directly to universities and is particularly important for humanities and social science disciplines.

There is also a perception that funding for humanities teaching will be withdrawn while that for science subjects is untouched. In fact, cuts to teaching budgets from 2012 are non-discriminatory in subject terms: all core funding is removed (bands C and D), with only high-cost subjects with laboratory or clinical costs (bands A and B) retaining additional funding.

Yes, these are all STEM subjects, but they do, objectively, cost more to teach. The issue is not so much whether the policy is biased against non-STEM subjects, but whether the new and more generous student support arrangements are sufficient to ensure access for disadvantaged students and to capture the public good delivered by higher education.

There's a further consideration before we rush to proclaim imminent catastrophe for the humanities and social sciences. Our subjects are flourishing. The majority of students are in arts, humanities and social science subjects, and their numbers are increasing. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that between 2001-02 and 2009-10, the number of students in these subjects, both undergraduate and postgraduate, climbed by 40 per cent - with the rise in non-European Union students being particularly marked at more than 78 per cent. All the indicators are that UK research in these subjects is world class.

True, these indicators can be one basis for arguing with ministers that government should interfere less in one of the few truly successful sectors of UK national life. What these figures don't suggest is that these subjects risk not being in demand. In a world of higher tuition fees, humanities subjects may look attractive investment prospects to vice-chancellors.

The conclusion is not that there is no threat to the humanities and social sciences, but that we need to identify the threats accurately, with more precision and less paranoia. We need to shake off a general sense of victimhood.

We know there are major hazards facing foreign language provision, where we have seen departmental closures. As well as access, I am worried about the implications of the new funding system for UK students wanting to go on to postgraduate studies. They will be in debt and there are no new funding support arrangements for them. I am also concerned about tighter restrictions on student visas and their impact on attracting overseas students.

The list could be extended but the principle is clear: there is a need to focus on the real challenges and to find solutions for them - not to claim that the whole house is collapsing when it is too robust for that.

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