Are we seeing new cold spots emerge in humanities provision in the UK?

Harriet Barnes analyses data on course provision and warns of the risk of a loss of diversity in subject provision in some parts of the UK.

Just before Christmas, Andrew Burn from KPMG assessed the financial health of the higher education sector and concluded that, contrary to what many had feared, we probably won’t see the widespread collapse of institutions as a result of the impact of Covid-19.

This is encouraging and a genuine reason for optimism ahead of what we know will be another challenging – but hopefully brighter – year. Nonetheless, as Andrew says, we can expect a fair degree of reshaping across the sector and it is worth considering exactly what that might look like in terms of the sector’s subject offering.

Over the course of 2020, there was a steady stream of announcements or leaks from universities about plans to close, downsize or restructure departments in the disciplines that fall within SHAPE (Social Science, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy).

To begin with, these passed largely unnoticed beyond those immediately affected, as attention turned firmly to moving provision online and making alternative arrangements for assessments as the pandemic hit.

By the autumn term, however, it was clear that these were no longer isolated occurrences but part of a bigger pattern. We at the British Academy became concerned that in addition to the direct impact on staff and students of the individual closures, there was a growing risk of “cold spots” – geographical areas or types of institution where it may no longer be possible to study certain subjects.

The SHAPE of the data

Looking at the UCAS data on applications and acceptances shows that although student numbers in social sciences and business studies have grown across all UK regions between 2009 and 2018, and in 2018 made up just under a third of the total student cohort accepted for undergraduate study through the UCAS main scheme, acceptances for humanities have fallen sharply over the same period.

In fact, humanities now make up less than a tenth of the cohort. This decline can be seen in all UK regions except the south west (where numbers have risen) but the biggest falls have been in Northern Ireland and Wales, of 39 per cent and 35 per cent respectively.

Given that we know only a relatively small proportion of students travel outside their UK jurisdiction for university (and fewer than five per cent of students from Northern Ireland), this risks seriously limiting opportunities for students to study these disciplines.

For SHAPE subjects, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between what an individual studies at school and what they chose to do at university, but it is notable that while numbers taking arts and humanities subjects at A level have also fallen, the fall has been smaller in Northern Ireland compared to Wales and England, suggesting that there isn’t necessarily a lack of demand for courses in these subjects.

Once it’s gone, it’s gone

For England, the somewhat unexpected data release from the Office for Students on diversity of provider choice within subject showed that for full time students at least, there is a pretty good choice of courses in most subject areas. Our analysis of the UCAS data confirms that this picture is generally repeated at a regional scale with no area in England standing out as a potential cold spot for humanities as a whole, although when it comes to individual subjects, particularly modern languages, the picture is more complex.

But we know to our cost from modern languages that once provision is gone, it is very hard to re-establish. While the big picture is not yet a catastrophe, each individual closure will shut down opportunities for those students who do not have the flexibility to travel to another institution. And there is a risk of a chain reaction – once one provider moves, others may feel empowered to follow them, and very quickly whole areas of provision may have disappeared, creating not just geographical cold spots, but also reducing the potential for students of other disciplines to widen their learning through cross-cutting, interdisciplinary study which includes the humanities.

Many of the announcements of department and course closures we saw in 2020 must have already been well in train before the pandemic took hold, so we don’t know yet whether the trend will continue to accelerate. The Office for Students’ consultation on regulating quality and standards, with its problematic proposed metric on student outcomes including progression into a graduate job, is also likely to cause providers to pay close attention to their portfolios, though we hope they will also take note of the evidence we collected in Qualified for the Future, which shows how SHAPE graduates are resilient to economic upheaval and vital to eight of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy.

The British Academy is now planning to carry out further data analysis and bring together sector leaders during spring 2021 to explore the challenges and opportunities for higher education provision in SHAPE. Vibrant academic communities depend on having a wide range of viewpoints and disciplinary insights. Now more than ever we need what the social sciences, humanities and arts can tell us about how we live as humans within our society and culture as we look to come out of the other side of the pandemic.

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