The skills debate needs more oohs and AHSS*

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

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The great arts, humanities and social sciences skills audit

When predicting the value of skills that students acquire at university, science, technology, engineering and maths subjects appear to have some advantages. Nuclear power, for instance, depends on highly trained nuclear engineers – or we all die. English graduates can become prime ministers and CEOs, but the link between disciplinary learning and career effectiveness is rather less direct.

The British Academy is trying to do something about this, through a ‘flagship skills project’ titled ‘Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’. This is driven by a grand ambition: ‘to articulate the skills that are inherent to the study of arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS), their value to the individual, and the contribution they do make and could make in future to society’. Utopian in some respects, the project nonetheless demands attention from everyone involved in these fields.

 

Skills, skills, skills

Skills matter. It’s critical that those involved in higher education should be able to demonstrate the skills their students learn, and equally critical that graduates should be able to articulate the value of what they have learned. This matters in the undergraduate admission cycle, when potential students want to know where their degree – coming, as it does, at considerable cost – might take them. It also matters in terms of the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which in future will assess not just destinations but perceptions of the connection between learning and career success.

In public discourse the skills debate has been monopolized by STEM advocates. We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of HASS-educated politicians asserting that the only degrees with any real value are STEM ones. HASS disciplines have been slow to rise to this challenge. Our lists of ‘transferable skills’, buried away on module descriptions, are copied and pasted from year to year without much reflection. Maybe some academics feel uneasy about a skills agenda; many surely lack confidence in the non-academic value of what they are teaching.

In this context, the British Academy initiative is timely. It begins with a pragmatic acknowledgement of a ‘need for a better understanding of whether the UK has got the right balance of skills levels and disciplines for the future’. The ‘call for evidence’ document provides a useful, if not comprehensive, review of existing literature on the subject of HASS skills. On this basis it proposes an excellent list of core HASS skills:

  • Advocacy and the ability to present a case
  • Analysis and evaluation of evidence, weighing up arguments and understanding multiple perspectives, awareness of the possibilities and limitations of data, methodological rigour
  • Ability to notice and describe, and to contextualise, pointing out and unravelling complexity
  • Imaginative objectivity, persuasion, diplomacy, negotiation, listening, empathy
  • Leadership, independence, initiative, problem solving
  • Creative enthusiasm, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-management
  • Resilience, cultural awareness, adaptability, flexibility and the ability to navigate change

As the document acknowledges, however, it’s easy enough to assert that HASS subjects teach these skills but another to be able to demonstrate it. And the question of whether we do it well is another question again. It would be great to have some hard evidence to support claims such as these.

 

Trawling for evidence

As much as I want to see the BA’s project succeed, I admit to a degree of scepticism. While the Academy can claim a measure of success in its previous, more focused work on quantitative skills and languages (not complete success by any means, given the seemingly unstoppable decline in language learning), this programme is of another degree of complexity altogether.

If the ‘call for evidence’ document was a grant application, it has to be said that it wouldn’t get past peer reviewers. It makes the mistake of foreshadowing its findings before undertaking the research: this is a project, as the title proclaims, aiming to celebrate skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Its questions, meanwhile, are unnervingly broad and open-ended. Respondents are asked more than once whether they know of ‘any other evidence’, while at one point they are canvassed for advice on how this project might be done. We’re assured that this will all be processed in time for a final report in autumn 2017. I’ll believe that when I see it.

I also fear that this project has not achieved the level of recognition that it deserves. There was no mention of it at the annual general meeting of my own subject association, University English, last week. Maybe the association executive members were overwhelmed by the bank of questions; more likely they (like me: sorry) simply had not been aware of the project. The deadline for responses has been extended once (to today, in fact), and maybe the process will need to be stretched again.

 

If the people charged with leading this project can get a grip on it, this may still be a hugely valuable initiative. The call for evidence document alone is rich in its outline of the field; if this sense of purpose can be maintained, there’s cause for hope. There should be much to celebrate, once the evidence is gathered and analysed.

Industry with the creativity taken out*

In order to become a citizen of the UK, an immigrant needs to learn a lot about the nation’s creative past and present. Life in the UK: A Guide for New Residents introduces its readers to Britain’s theatres, museums and galleries, and a host of poets and novelists. Those aspiring to British citizenship are warned not to take the ‘Life in the UK Test’ without having grasped, among other things, ‘the development of British cinema’.

But what happens to this proud appreciation of the creative industries should the aspiring British citizen enter the world of government policy? Faced with the Building our Industrial Strategy Green Paper, a very different kind of nation emerges. This document sees industry through a prism of science and technology. It contains eight references to battery technology but no mention of the film industry. Its perception of research and skills barely glances beyond ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Of course it would be absurd to claim that the sciences are free of creativity, just as it would be foolish to deny the importance of battery technology to the sustainability agenda. But people working in the film industry – or, for that matter, the still more lucrative gaming industry – have cause to feel marginalized, even patronized.

 

Putting creativity back in

The creative industries include film and television, publishing, architecture, design, advertising, music, software and gaming. While the Green Paper might prefer a model of ‘industry’ forged in the heat of the Industrial Revolution, creativity is a big deal in 2017.

In January this year the Business secretary, Greg Clark, acknowledged the creative industries as the fastest growing sector of the UK economy. Figures released in 2016 by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport demonstrated that the creative industries generated £87.4 billion of value to the UK economy in 2015, and that they were creating new jobs at more than twice the rate for the economy as a whole. And if we stretch our focus a little, almost 10% of the UK workforce is employed in creative occupations, which is more people than are employed in either construction or financial services.

At their most successful, the creative industries draw upon people with a wide range of skills and training. A recent report on a cluster of high-growth creative firms in Brighton found not only that a mix of disciplinary expertise brings success, but also that 48% of the entrepreneurs were arts, design or humanities graduates. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Steve Jobs described Apple as ‘existing at the intersection of technology and liberal arts’. We know also that roughly a third of FTSE100 CEOs hold humanities degrees, along with a significant proportion of politicians and senior sivil servants.

 

Creativity? We can teach that

But somewhere along the line, education in STEM subjects became the priority. ‘STEM’ wasn’t even a thing until the present century; people studied science and technology disciplines, but not under this brand. The coinage of the acronym dates back to 2001, and has been a little piece of public relations brilliance that has transformed public discourse on education across the world.

This is not to argue that more expertise in the sciences and technology disciplines may not be a good thing. That would be madness. But the easy over-reliance on ‘STEM’ in the public arena all too quickly becomes exclusive, creating a binary that looks rather like: ‘STEM’ v ‘the less useful stuff’. The Green Paper dives right down this tunnel of vision, promising to ‘boost STEM skills’, increase PhDs in STEM, and so forth. ‘STEM’ is mentioned twenty times, the social sciences and the arts and humanities not at all. The spring budget fell into line, promising 1000 new PhD studentships ‘in areas aligned with the industrial strategy’. It’s boom-time for batteries.

It’s surely time to think about ways of articulating more powerfully the skills that students develop through studying other disciplines, in the arts, humanities and social sciences. These skills – qualitative and quantitative analysis, communication, critical thinking, team-working, design, entrepreneurialism, and so forth – take our graduates into all sorts of important places. Educators need to remember that, and we need to ensure that our graduates don’t forget it when they become CEOs and government ministers. And, by the way, we can teach creativity.

 

Creativity? We can research that

For the UK’s researchers, the big proposal in Building our Industrial Strategy is the creation of an ‘Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’, worth around £2 billion. Though not intended as exhaustive, the Green Paper lists likely priority areas, including: robotics, satellites, biotechnology, supercomputing, and – yes – batteries.

Much research in the arts and humanities has no obvious implications for the creative industries. This is also true of much STEM research. But the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council have worked hard over the past decade to support collaboration at areas of interface. For example, the AHRC’s  knowledge exchange hubs experimented with models of engagement between researchers and industry, and demonstrated the economic impact of such investment. Specific projects ranged from innovation in gaming, textiles, medical products, intellectual property, through to the ambitious Creative Cardiff initiative.

After these developments, researchers were primed and ready for a bold, twenty-first century industrial strategy. We’ve proved that we can achieve a lot, in a fast-growing sector, with a fraction of the overall investment promised in the Green Paper. In terms of research synergies, just as in the area of skills and training, we have much to contribute to industry. But that’s not the vision we get from Building Our Industrial Strategy.

 

There’s a way to go in this process. The Green Paper is open for consultation until 17 April. Meanwhile Sir Peter Bazalgette, outgoing Chair of the Arts Council, has been commissioned to conduct a review of the creative industries. But shifting both the terms and the tone of the debate will require some energetic and collaborative – even, in the classic use of the term, industrious – labour.

  • The was published under a different title by wonkhe.com.

‘Too many graduates spoil the economy’

Are universities producing too many graduates? There’s been some really interesting debate about this question over the past week, prompted by a report from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), titled Over-qualification and Skills Mismatch in the Graduate Labour Market.

From many angles, it’s difficult to see how such a deftly titled publication could attract such attention. Maybe, in part, that’s an August thing. But it’s also more than that, because the politics of the argument are combustible, especially in the wake of the decision to remove the cap on student numbers. For, if it can be demonstrated that ‘too many’ students are being produced, and if this decision is costing the state money (in the form of fees that will never be repaid), there will be a strong argument in favour of revisiting that decision.

The report is challenging, and a couple of the responses (from HEFCE and The Conversation) have also been well worth reading. In simple economic terms – which are effectively the only terms in which the debate has been conducted – there are some strong points on each side, and inevitably squabbles over the validity of the data being deployed. (The CIPD report, notably, relies heavily on a survey of employee perceptions of the value of their degrees. That’s a new one for me.)

But I’m not an economist, so I don’t want to get involved in those arguments. My points here are more about what the economics leaves out.

      It’s more than the economy, stupid

The fundamental preconception underlying the report has not, to my knowledge, been commented on by anyone. But it’s a curious one: the big idea, as I understand it, is that the ideal state will produce just enough graduates for the available quantity of graduate-level employment. Any more than that will constitute ‘over-production’, and will be a waste of resources. An efficient economy, properly geared towards maximizing productivity, won’t waste money on unnecessary training.

There’s some genuinely compelling material here, particularly the assault on the belief – dominant over the past decade or so – that if we produce more graduates the economy will inevitably produce more graduate-level jobs to accommodate them. But my point here is the preconception about the point of education. As the report puts it: ‘The bottom line is to ask how much more cheaply could an individual have entered a particular job and been just as productive had they not attended university but got there by some other route.’ Such an individual would, by definitionk, be ‘over-educated’.

So my question is: might education have values beyond economic productivity? What about the social value of education? What about its potential to produce better citizens, better voters, better parents, better carers, better volunteers, better artists, and so forth? That line of questioning can veer towards snobbery, of course. I wouldn’t claim for a minute that one needs a university education to be good in any of those roles, but I absolutely would argue that, on average, graduates gain advantages that are economically unmeasurable. And society is better as a result.

I’m sensitive about such arguments, perhaps, because we hear a lot of this sort of discourse in attacks on the humanities. It’s the old utilitarian line: what’s an English degree good for? I suspect that even many of our graduates might struggle to articulate a response to that sort of question, given the baggage that it tends to carry about with it. But I believe they’re better equipped for their working lives, as well as their lives in general, as a result of their education. The ‘graduate premium’ (if you’re not familiar with it, google it) is not just measurable in financial terms.

      What about aspiration?

Reading this report, I couldn’t help thinking about the Victorian line on education for the working classes, which went something like: ‘If t’lad’s only goin’ down t’pit, what good’s learnin’?’ (At least, that’s roughly how I imagine them speaking up north in the nineteenth century.) What’s the point, in other words, of educating someone more than they’re worth?

I don’t want to get silly about this; I’m quite happy to accept that higher education just doesn’t work for quite a lot of people, so it’s crucial that other training and development options are available. I’m also happy enough to consider arguments over what might constitute a healthy HE participation rate. But I’m worried about the potential politics of a report that is blind to any benefits other than the strictly economic. It smacks just a little of ‘keeping ’em in their places’.

Aspiration, I’d argue, is productive. It will admittedly leave many people dissatisfied, when their goals run into brick-wall realities, but it will fuel competition and drive creativity. In the 1590s – to go way back – there were worries about the number of under-employed graduates in London. They grumbled and drank and fought; however, they also produced some of the most powerful and enduring literature in the English language. The best among them famously hadn’t gone to university at all, but the culture he inhabited was shaped by learning.

And one final question: who do you think might find themselves being told not to bother about higher education because there’s not enough graduate employment? It won’t be my nice middle-class white daughters, that’s for sure.

      Politics and politics

So there’s a politics to this, though it’s worth stressing that it doesn’t obviously fit a left-right party-political divide. It’s the Conservatives, after all, who have lifted the cap on student numbers. But there’s a politics to the economic – and only economic – model. And I think this is worth confronting.