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Should we get more stressed about the humanities?

In this guest blog, Professor Geoffrey Crossick, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, reflects upon the current status of the humanities in the UK and beyond.

When the Being Human festival started in 2014, I wrote a guest blog that took stock of where the humanities stood in the UK. I welcomed the festival as a way to build a more positive story about the humanities, replacing a prevailing sense of embattlement that had only limited justification in this country.

The blog was headed Why we should be less stressed about the humanities. Are the arguments I made there still compelling or are there reasons for our stress levels to rise? Humanities academics here feed off fears in other countries and particularly from the US.

In 2014, I drew attention to the ideological attacks on the humanities and social sciences from the Republican right and noted that these hadn’t happened here. The US has further deteriorated, with the President trying to withdraw all funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and its counterpart for the Arts, and massive declines in humanities enrolments as student choice moves elsewhere.

We shouldn’t assume that the same attacks are to be found in Europe, though in Denmark it looks as though the humanities and social sciences will not benefit from the ending of the five-year budget squeeze for universities. Nonetheless, explicit attacks on the humanities remain rare here. So why might we allow our stress levels to rise?

Student recruitment and research funding

First, because of student recruitment trends. A slow decline in the proportion of undergraduates studying humanities subjects from 2008 sped up after 2014. Looking at A-Level and GCSE numbers may not show decline on the scale of creative and performing arts, but are not encouraging with falls in numbers taking English at A-Level and modern foreign languages at GCSE particularly striking.

This is nothing like the US decline but is worrying. Second, humanities research, which initially looks more positive. Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funding has gone up, though mostly through targeted programmes in the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund, with the former focused on the creative industries.

Quality-related Research (QR) funding through the Research England block grant is more important for the humanities than for STEM, and fears that it might be cut have so far proved unfounded, with Research England even securing a small increase. But there are reasons for concern.

Changes to the architecture of research funding may lead to its targeting specific strategic challenges, with the humanities having to argue even more that they are needed to support other disciplinary areas (which they are) and vacating the territory where the case for the humanities itself should stand.

We don’t know how the UK will relate to Horizon Europe, the EU’s next Research & Development programme, but it is unlikely to yield the level of grant income won over the last decade. This matters for all research but disproportionately for the humanities and social sciences: of 15 subject areas where over 20 per cent of total research funding came from EU sources, only two were STEM. Archaeology and classics were well over 30 per cent, with media studies, law, philosophy, modern languages and areas studies not far behind. Low UK funding was compensated for through EU programmes, and that is now at serious risk.

Framing the value of the humanities

Third, there is the challenge from policy discourse. The way value is now defined in higher education policy discourse threatens an understanding of what humanities graduates gain and contribute. The shift did not originate with the Augar Report but it found its clearest expression there. Augar’s discussion of value was framed by its focus on fees and debt, and produced a conception of subjects and courses of low value based essentially on the additional graduate earnings as captured through Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data.

LEO was constructed to answer questions about loan repayments, but is being used for a policy purpose for which it was never intended. Augar acknowledges in passing that there is value to the individual and society not captured by earnings data, but this is neither developed nor incorporated in the analysis.

There are so many ways that graduates benefit from studying for a degree and contribute to society and the economy, and the humanities suffer (as do the arts) from this narrowing of the discourse about value.

Complex realities

My fourth concern is to be found within humanities disciplines themselves. As the Royal Historical Society’s significant Race, Ethnicity & Equality report has shown, there are deep-rooted problems over diversity throughout career progression alongside a challenge to what has come to be known as decolonizing the curriculum, a challenge that will not be easy. If this has been studied in detail for history, the lessons surely apply across the humanities.

My final reason for concern struck me on re-reading my 2014 blog. It ended with a peroration about how the humanities study cultures, languages, religions, communication, literature, art, ideas and much more, across different societies and through time. I emphasised their necessity to good public debate and good policy making, helping us understand the complexity of people and societies. We need disciplines, I said, which show us nuances and complexity and ‘don’t look for simple answers to complex realities’. They feel like days of wine and roses. In the west we now live in societies where nuance and complexity seem unwelcome, where simple answers to complex realities are the order of the day. It is not a context propitious for the humanities, and that is perhaps the biggest reason for our stress levels to go up. Probably more than just a little.