Is it time for a British crisis of the humanities?

The economist David Blanchflower provided the latest report on the North American crisis of the humanities in a recent piece for the THE. On the basis of evidence from his own Dartmouth, an Ivy League college that teaches, conventionally enough, a Liberal Arts curriculum, he demonstrates a shift of interest among undergraduates over the past decade or so. The trend is towards professionally-oriented disciplines, such as his own, and away from some more traditional disciplines, including most of the humanities.

It’s a peculiar piece, rather too motivated for its own good by internal politics: that sense of ‘why are the guys at the end of the corridor doing so little teaching and keeping their jobs?’ It would have benefited from some research into whether the Dartmouth data is representative. He might also have dwelt a little on what seems to me paradoxical: that this is happening at a time when, because of the shift at Dartmouth (as at quite a number of elite US institutions) towards needs-blind admissions, many students are leaving with little debt, or no debt at all, despite the apparently high fees. So it’s not necessarily anxiety about loan repayments that is making students more pragmatic in their subject choices.

But if we assume that the Dartmouth pattern, at least to some degree, is a national one, this helps to explain the anxiety about the humanities that seems so prevalent in North America. And it would explain pressures on the job market there, since faculty in the humanities who retire or resign are not necessarily being replaced. The money will go to the Economics department instead. Blanchflower’s efforts to reflect on what this might mean for the UK, however, seem to me a little sketchy. I want to take a moment, in response, to argue that this crisis may not be internationally transferable, though also to suggest a couple of reasons why we might still be concerned.

The main difference between the US and UK systems is in their respective degree structures. Professional degrees in the US tend to be graduate degrees: Medicine and Law, most notably, are taken after general undergraduate degrees. Arguably this makes US undergraduate programmes more sensitive to shifts of demand towards professional development pathways, whereas in the UK any bias is already built into our system at undergraduate level. A British seventeen-year-old wanting to be a doctor will head straight for a Medicine degree, and numbers of medical students are regulated nationally. This is not to argue that the US might not be getting something right – I’d feel more confident in the NHS if more doctors had read some George Eliot – but it is to say that our humanities departments are less exposed.

Secondly, our predominant single-honours model of undergraduate education (in England and Wales) perhaps also insulates us against the kind of shifts evident in the US. Again, this is not to argue that we’re right and the US is wrong; I’m very interested in the rise of Liberal Arts in the UK, and I’m proud to have been involved in the development of Exeter’s programme. But humanities disciplines – especially ‘classic brands’ such as English and History – are holding their value very well here. The fact that they cost the same as degrees that may lead more directly to lucrative careers, or subjects that manifestly cost more to teach, doesn’t seem to deter students. In so many ways, conventional economic logic breaks down in the market for higher education.

Thirdly, employer attitudes perhaps differ on either side of the Atlantic. Blanchflower assumes that employers on Wall Street and thereabouts do not value humanities graduates. Maybe that’s true (although an old friend of mine at one of the top consulting firms in the world always tells me he’s sick of interviewing bright young things from Harvard who have all the numeracy skills but no people skills); certainly, though, all the evidence of employer attitudes in the UK demonstrates no such bias. They want good graduates with good degrees from good universities.

The final reason why I think we’re – now – in a different place is the REF. A system for judging research in the humanities by the same scale as is used for research in all other areas, and then for feeding this data into league tables, is in our interests. And the REF’s system of peer review is much more beneficial – symbolically, at least, equitable – for the humanities than alternatives, such as indices of citations or patents.

But I don’t think, regardless of all this, that we’re necessarily crisis-proof. Perhaps the biggest reason why we might still take notice of US trends is simply as a reminder that things can change. There’s nothing natural about the current strength of English and History, however well they have sailed through the £9k challenge at most of the better UK universities. And the system is so finely-tuned that small changes could affect us significantly. The current fees regime will change, one way or another. What would happen to humanities disciplines if there were genuine differences between fees charged for different subjects and different universities? The REF may also change. Employer attitudes may change, especially if the multinationals abandon the traditional British tolerance of subject-specialization. And any sustained weakness in our disciplines in the US will inevitably matter to us reputationally. Finally, it’s also worth noting that tenure still has a meaning in the US: Blanchflower is grumpy in part because Dartmouth can’t, or won’t, make those humanities professors redundant. UK universities are rather less benign places.

I’ve said before that if degree programmes were stocks, Exeter would be over-invested in English. But I’ve also been proved wrong, since my department has continued to expand, and this expansion has bought time and resources necessary to develop some weaker disciplines, and indeed some brand new ones. So there’s no sign of the market turning yet, though we’d be foolish to forget that it is a market, and one that even Dartmouth economists struggle to comprehend.

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6 thoughts on “Is it time for a British crisis of the humanities?

  1. Having just read Alex Preston’s piece asserting a ‘war against the humanities’ (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/29/war-against-humanities-at-britains-universities?CMP=share_btn_tw), I wonder whether it might be time to revise the above blog-post, or write a new on altogether.
    Funny piece: he talked to a lot of people, but didn’t do a lot of listening. Ok, university life is changing, and there is always evidence of management pressures impacting on individuals. But a war on the humanities? Just a couple of points, before I talk myself into a fresh blog-post. 1) When the government cut fees, it cut across the board. STEM subjects always cost more to teach, so they retained some residual government funding. In fact, now, counter-intuitively, the margins to universities are greater on humanities subjects than on sciences. The real scandal, it seems to me, is that a proportion of the fees paid by many humanities students is actually subsidizing the sciences, for this reason. (Willetts was onto that issue before he left; students barely notice.) But the bottom-line is that the humanities are ‘profitable’ for universities. There’s no economic logic in them cutting us. 2) Where’s the evidence for collapsing student demand? Actually, students are continuing to choose humanities degrees, precisely for the reasons that Preston says are being ignored. There are always canges in patterns of demand, of course (e.g. ongoing pressures on Modern Languages), but that’s another matter. And it seems to me the shifts in China that Preston acknowledges are extremely interesting. There’s a (gradual, admittedly) shift towards the liberal arts evident there. I’d bet we’ll be getting increasing numbers of international students onto humanities degrees in future, as is already happening in US liberal arts colleges. 3) Pressures on humanities scholars and departments are easy to identify, but I suspect these are evident, at least as much, in the sciences. How many chemistry departments have been closed over the past twenty years? And how vulnerable does a scientist become when his/her grant figures drop?
    Preston recognizes some important issues in his wide-ranging piece (casualization of labour perhaps one of the biggest of all), but we need to be clear about the difference between structural and cultural changes across the university sector, on the one hand, and pressures on humanities, on the other hand. All of which is not to say that there’s a dangerous anti-humanities discourse in public life. There is. But: a) wasn’t it ever this? And: b) does Preston’s alarmist discourse help us in any way, when there are more positive stories to tell?

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