There was something a little underwhelming about the launch this week of a British Academy report on skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). To coincide with a royal engagement feels like misfortune; but to be overshadowed by the government’s underwhelming industrial strategy white paper looks more like miscalculation.
Making an AHSS of ourselves
The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is the product of a project designed to map the skills that students develop across these subject-areas. It lists them under three headings: ‘communication and collaboration’, ‘research and analysis’, and ‘attitudes and behaviours’. For those of us working in these areas and keen to promote them, this is all hugely valuable.
Yet it’s hard not to set this report against the (albeit muted) fanfare attendant upon the industrial strategy. If the white paper represents the continued ascendancy of STEM – that canny little acronym that has taken such hold on the imaginations of politicians – The Right Skills feels rather more awkward. I mean, the acronym, AHSS, is just wrong any which way you look at it. Is it, do you think, to be pronounced ‘ass’, ‘arse’ or ‘aahs’? Then there’s the challenge of representing in one report the sheer breadth of disciplines, from economics through to dance.
As a result, The Right Skills feels to me like only one piece of a bigger, necessary project. As it stands it has the air of a sensible and well-mannered English person speaking politely in the corner of a crowded room. I’d suggest there’s more to be said: about the place of these disciplines in the world, and how they are taught.
The AHSS end of the world
By global standards, the AHSS disciplines in the UK are doing pretty well. I appreciate that’s not always how it feels to early-career academics, nor indeed right now to my friends at Southampton, but we remain well placed. This is partly because of a quirk in the fees system, which makes it advantageous for universities to increase their AHSS courses. But more profoundly I would argue that there is a remarkably solid appreciation – among the public, and also among employers – of what we pain-in-the-AHSS’s do as researchers and teachers.
But we can’t for a minute take this for granted. Beyond the UK, the arts and humanities have been in a state of contraction for some time. Try looking at the data kept in the USA on undergraduate choices of majors; try checking out the size of the average English department at otherwise huge Australian universities. And within the UK, applications are trending downwards in some key disciplines. Brexit also presents reasons to be nervous, especially since the UK’s world-leading services sector, which has traditionally employed so many AHSS-hole graduates, is in line to take a very big hit. And to date the only services strategy seems to involve a lot of waving goodbye.
In this context, The Right Skills helps, but leaves me wanting more. I want a ‘AHSS skills’ poster for my office door. I want a collection of quotes from employers to use at open days. I want to hear politicians endorsing our disciplines with the same fervour they tend to reserve for STEM. And I really, really want a better acronym than AHSS, if that wasn’t quite clear enough…
The AHSS end of the curriculum
When I first started teaching in the UK, a fellow immigrant took me aside and explained that the English single-honours degree model is wonderful because it takes students straight out of school and prepares them to enter research degrees. Even seventeen years ago that sounded a little myopic. Today, with all the emphasis on skills and graduate destinations, it is almost unsayable; yet many of our basic programme structures remain the same.
David Willetts is worried about the level of specialisation in the UK education system: he calls in his new book for both A-Level reform and the introduction of four-year degrees. But the trends are pulling in the other direction. In recent years I’ve been following data produced by surveying A level colleges, which demonstrates how funding constraints are forcing them to cut their range of subjects, and also to limit students to three subjects. Many of those students will, quite reasonably, stick within their comfort zones when choosing degrees, thus compounding the specialisation effect.
The Right Skills is onto this in principle. Its final chapter, ‘Are AHSS graduates fit for the future?’, recommends that universities encourage the development of ‘a mindset of innovation and enterprise’, stresses the value of ‘language, digital and data skills’, and promotes interdisciplinary learning. Precisely; but it would be helpful to have some case-studies of good practice, and maybe a rather more direct challenge to universities. By way of comparison, a useful American report more specifically identifies eight skill-sets that make liberal arts students more employable, and at higher salaries: IT networking and support, sales, computer programming, data analysis and management, marketing, graphic design, general business, and social media. In the UK Nesta and Pearson have also produced useful data-driven research about 2030 employment.
One reason why a greater sense of challenge might be needed is the in-built conservatism in our structures. Teaching single honours programmes is easy and cost-effective, they make sense in terms of workload planning and departmental budgeting. Several years ago I led the development of a Liberal Arts programme at Exeter, which had requirements of language-study, quantitative methods, and group-research. The programme is flourishing, but some of those requirements have been whittled away: partly for administrative reasons, and partly because applicants – trained as they are into conservative choices – were telling us they weren’t comfortable with them.
There are lots of reasons to celebrate AHSS skills. Those of us who teach in these areas know this, since we see our students progressing into excellent jobs. But there is also cause for anxiety, and reasons to promote some challenging reforms. As a next step, it would be good to see the British Academy tackling these issues – at which point I will stop being such a pain in the AHSS.
* Originally published at wonkhe.com