Time to treat the arts as a full partner in UK plc

September 21, 2001

There has been much hand-wringing over careers for scientists. Now it's the humanities' turn, writes Bob Bennett.

Do the brightest minds want to undertake PhDs in the arts, humanities and social sciences? And if they do, will they wish to continue in research careers? These were the guiding questions that the British Academy graduate studies review group sought to answer over the past year. We found that there were grave causes for concern in both the quantity and quality of United Kingdom students in certain disciplines, and that universities are also having problems recruiting well-trained academics.

The study is one of the most comprehensive examinations of the recruitment of researchers in the humanities and social sciences: all the existing statistical data on graduate students and academic staff from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the funding councils and research councils were brought together. The review group also conducted the first survey of all heads of department in all the relevant subjects. The fact that 721 departmental heads and deans of graduate schools responded to the questionnaire reflects the strength of feeling on these matters. These heads of departments represented 129 higher education institutions, which had 7,015 new PhD students in 2000-01.

The good news is that our study found that overall numbers of postgraduates in the arts, social sciences and humanities have increased. But this is because non-home student numbers have increased markedly while UK student numbers in many disciplines have declined. The presence of overseas postgraduates is a very positive indicator of the strength of the UK's reputation, but most of these students seek careers back home. This is good for their countries, but does not help the UK's knowledge economy. Who in the future will be our Home Office statisticians, Bank of England economists, senior archivists or researchers in the heritage industries?

Recruitment to postgraduate work cannot be disentangled from the attractiveness of academic careers. Our survey of heads of department found that recruitment was a major problem. University salaries and early years' salary progression, give inadequate incentives to take a PhD and stay on in a research career. Our findings are thus similar to the 2000 Bett review. The outcome is that the research-led component of the knowledge-based economy is being undermined. Business studies, economics, accountancy, psychology, law and education, Chinese and European languages are having serious difficulties, both in recruiting students and in obtaining new staff. When Margaret Hodge, minister of state for lifelong learning and higher education, attends the report's launch today, we will ask her to recognise the emerging crisis of recruitment by giving our recommendations a priority in her department's bidding in the comprehensive spending review in this and subsequent years. We particularly hope that our chief recommendations on the phased waiving of student debt and increased grants will figure in her bid.

The waiving of student debt is similar to proposals being mooted for primary and secondary schools, which have been struggling to recruit maths and science teachers. The same pattern seems to be emerging in PhD recruitment. Increasingly, students do not find it financially attractive to stay on. Hence, we are concerned that recruitment is becoming selective of those who can afford it and that social inclusiveness is being undermined.

But the problem is not just financial. The government has also been encouraging universities to develop "new-style PhDs", with more training content and which are closer to employer needs. The British Academy report also encourages more flexibility for the PhD model. While the concept of a PhD pursued by purely individual study might have been justified in the past, the modern expectation of research training for a broad range of careers requires a PhD model that has more training content and collaborates more with external sources of demand.

If nothing else, I hope the report will also lead to a higher priority being given to research policy in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The government, through various reports - particularly from the Treasury, Office of Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Education and Skills - has shown considerable concern for science research. Our report shows that similar concerns are now warranted for the arts, humanities and social sciences - disciplines that are contributing to some of the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy. The government needs to give equal emphasis to the contribution of these disciplines to economic productivity and growth.

Bob Bennett is chairman of the British Academy's Graduate Studies Review.

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