False economies – why cutting SHAPE courses is bad for HE and bad for the country

Caron Gentry issues a plea for more widespread valuing of arts, humanities and social science education even - or especially - in times of financial pressure

Caron Gentry is Faculty Pro Vice-Chancellor for Arts, Design, and Social Sciences at Northumbria University

As leaders at UK universities wrestle with our financial positions, with ever-increasing restraints on a healthy bottom line, we often feel we are forced to look beyond our academic ideal of a commitment to all subject areas, making cutbacks in places we think it will be least painful.

As a pro vice chancellor of a faculty comprised entirely of SHAPE subjects, Arts, Design, Humanities, and Social Sciences, I remain deeply committed to these disciplines, knowing, though, that external forces continue to threaten their survival. Survival depends on many things, but perhaps, more than anything, it depends on academics willingly and happily showing off what we think might cheapen our quest for knowledge: that our disciplines not just generate and contribute to social and public good, but they also contribute to the employability profile of our graduates and to the socio-economic health of our communities, regions, and beyond.

Society is made of humans

For too long, SHAPE subjects have been downplayed to the seemingly more generative force of STEM. This is a problematic binary that has meant the sector (and beyond) are forced into making false economies. For instance, a refrain running throughout a recent British Academy report is that SHAPE impact demonstrates a research commitment to the higher good, which drives public knowledge leading to behavioural changes that benefit people’s local communities, regions, as well as the national and global landscape. While the report does not make any recommendation to preserve SHAPE education, it comes only a year after the House of Lord’s report that the creative industries are vital to the local, regional, and national socio-economic good and that we must continue to educate students in order to fulfil this promise; something quite similar to this HEPI report on Humanities or this analysis by the English Association.

All of these upend the dominant narrative that STEM subjects are better for society and graduate employability. Both the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) continue to insist upon interdisciplinary research and the complementarity between SHAPE and STEM because, as many of us know, the challenges facing humanity will not be resolved by either on their own.

Rather tellingly, one of the STEM Research Excellence Framework (REF) panel members interviewed for the British Academy report said that engineering, medicine, and technology are useful and necessary; yet, they “are the handmaidens to society,” in which “society…is made out of individual humans. And if you don’t understand individual humans, you don’t understand what makes an effective culture. There is nothing more important to the survival of society than social science and the humanities.”

The UK needs a holistic approach to university education, one that enables our academics to do problem-solving research and one that prepares our students to be creative, critically-minded problem-solvers. Those who believe in SHAPE need to do a better job of communicating the utility of these disciplines. When I think of how to convince future students—and their family and friends—to follow their passion into humanities or arts or social sciences, I think of my own parents, who told me to save Art History for my mid-life crisis and that, instead, I needed to focus on a degree that would pay (imagine the conversation when I told them I was pursuing academia). Years later I am still having that conversation, only this time I am better armed. I know from the reports discussed above to conversations with entrepreneurs and business leaders that they not just want our graduates, they need them. They often articulate a picture similar to the REF STEM panel member and their desire to hire SHAPE graduates who are taught to be critical, creative, articulate and empathetic thinkers.

Interdisciplinary solutions to interdisciplinary challenges

We—academics, administrators, and marketing/recruitment staff—have to find a way of making all of our programmes attractive to students, thereby future-proofing vulnerable programmes against drops in recruitment that do point to decisions made in reference to the financial bottom line. At Northumbria, we aim to deliver outstanding, impactful research alongside an experiential, impactful education with our vitally important partners in Newcastle-Gateshead and the wider region, from the aforementioned entrepreneurs to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. The questions we pose to our students foster their ability to think holistically about a variety of challenges.

Through these relationships with partners, which are predominantly focused on social transformation, we are demonstrating the importance of SHAPE subjects to our culture and communities, nationally and globally. We also need our partners in government, the creative and cultural industries, and at SME and larger corporations to amplify the importance of our often co-created research, the impact it generates, and the necessity and value of the education we deliver to our students, who go on to be the very innovators UK society says it is seeking.

Thus, as the HE sector wrestles with the hard choices foisted on it by this financial black swan, I hope we do not always make what has been posed as the easy choice, where some changes might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is no easy answer to the financial predicament many UK universities find themselves in, but we do know that SHAPE is as important as STEM to research, education, and employability and seeing these as dichotomous and therefore as in tension is reductive. Indeed, valuing all subjects for the insights and learning they provide is the way forward, seeking interdisciplinary answers to interdisciplinary challenges.

7 responses to “False economies – why cutting SHAPE courses is bad for HE and bad for the country

  1. It is good practice to spell out acronyms when first used. In this case I gather that ‘SHAPE’ stands for ‘Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy’.

    But I read elsewhere that ‘SHAPE stands for Self-management and HeAlth Promotion in Early-stage dementia with e-learning for carers.’

    1. Interesting that you pick up on SHAPE and not STEM here, though? Are you suggesting that the validity of SHAPE hasn’t been accepted by society in the way STEM has? Might this not illustrate part of the problem and explain why the author has chosen not to define the acronym here?

  2. Of course we need a balance but with limited resources we must prioritise. The HE sector is not a priority and STEM and SHAPE will both suffer – and rightly so.

    It is probably best for the country if the brightest and most talented students are recruited to study the courses they want and the less able are not.

    1. Please define ” less able”. Are you referring to ability in terms of intellect? Further education attainment? Finance? Social context? Cultural background? Or the many other intertwined determining factors that comprise a person’s ability to engage with higher education (HE)?
      Ultimately, my criticism of this comment is that it sounds like a ideal recipe for reinforcing and/or further propagating already problematic social divides. And, at the expense of ensuring that all of those who stand to benefit the most from participation in HE can engage in university study – regardless of wider determinant factors. A detriment that in-turn would only diminish the overall value and potential positive social, cultural and economic contributions that HE can provide to a country.

  3. At the end of the day, university funding is now primarily based on student fees. For a course to be financially viable its income must be sufficient to pay for the staff to deliver it. Otherwise we are asking students to pay for the courses of other students; to get into debt for the education of another. I think we can agree that is not fair.

    All disciplines must look at how they are financially viable, whether STEM or SHAPE. Student recruitment in the latter has become a challenge, but I would argue that STEM has been more successful at sharing resources (for example a maths module shared across five engineering courses). My advice to SHAPE would be dismantling the often very bespoke knowledge based course design for a core of skills that can be shared across courses. Courses can then survive as resources are shared.

    1. This has been tried to some degree with the proliferation of ‘Liberal Arts’ degrees over the last five years or so at many unis, but not clear how successful they have been and the extent to which they have been a distraction that has merely cannibalised recruitment from other SHAPE subjects.

      1. I think the problem with liberal arts proliferation was the lack of reduction in other modules. You are right – recruitment was cannibalised. But there were no new students going to arrive. The plan is to reduce the modules available, to cut costs so courses can survive. It is hard, to go to a shared curriculum with minimal (if any) options. However, not doing so just leads to course closures, a lose-lose situation for everyone.

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