This article is more than 6 years old

Our disciplines are disappearing, we need to act now

Sally Shuttleworth of the University of Oxford warns that student choice is being limited.
This article is more than 6 years old

Sally Shuttleworth is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.

A key aim of the government’s current review of post-18 education is to ensure further and higher education are delivering the skills that the country needs.

The review ought, then, to be concerned that we risk moving towards a system that offers a less diverse range of subjects to study. Although “student choice” loomed large in the call for evidence, it is likely the outcome will be the reverse, bringing serious consequences for our education system, the economy, and our society.


The review is unfortunately constrained by the government’s terms of reference, which appear to endorse policies that compartmentalise disciplines and compare their “value” in dangerously simplistic ways. Skills are narrowly linked to “the government’s objectives for science, R&D, and the industrial strategy”.

As someone who studies the inter-relations between literature and science, I am concerned by a rhetoric that pits science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines against the rest, without understanding the fruitful interactions which flow across disciplinary borders. There has been such a focus on STEM skills in recent years, some subjects are already starting to disappear from our universities as a result.

The importance of the arts, humanities, and social sciences is being radically under-estimated, as demonstrated by the British Academy’s recent report The Right Skills. Even in narrowly utilitarian terms, it is clear that the skills developed by these disciplines fuel the country’s largely service-based economy, and drive growth in key areas like the creative industries and the third sector. The powers of creativity, problem solving, communication, and collaboration fostered by studies in arts, humanities and social science  are also those which will best equip individuals to respond to the challenges posed by AI and rapidly changing modes of work.

False dichotomies

Of course STEM subjects are vital in helping scientific advancement and technological development, but education should not be framed in terms of competition. STEM researchers openly acknowledge the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. In a recent speech, Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, warned of the lack of language skills and historical knowledge in young people, and the need to “garner expertise from across the disciplines”.

It is short-sighted to think that we can solve today’s problems, let alone the ones waiting for us down the line, without insights from across the disciplinary spectrum. Living as we do in a complex cultural world, understanding physical laws can only get you so far. Without the capacity to interrogate the past and anticipate the future we would live in an eternal present. We would be unable to frame even the first principles of an industrial strategy without the disciplines of economics, sociology, and history. And without a deep understanding of the religions, cultures, and languages of other regions of the world, our trade and foreign policies would be mere blunderings in the dark.    


And yet, our education system appears to be narrowing rather than broadening the options for students, who are now studying a more limited range of subjects at A-level. Many are once again taking exclusively STEM subjects. English, history, and foreign languages are major casualties of recent reforms and funding cuts, with knock-on effects for universities.

The rapid decline in the study of languages is particularly alarming. As well as being key to an outward-looking, global Britain post-Brexit, there are also wider cognitive benefits of language learning for individuals. Languages develop our understanding and engagement with other cultures, improving our powers of creativity and interconnectivity, and enhancing our wellbeing. There is even evidence that language learning can help the brain to recover faster from a stroke or keep dementia at bay. A special research project commissioned by the British Academy on these cognitive benefits reports later this year.  

In a survey of the linguistic skills and capabilities Britain needs to develop post-Brexit, the British Council identify Spanish as the most important foreign language, followed by Mandarin, French, Arabic, and German. Yet, enrolment on degree programmes in all of these languages has fallen significantly in recent years.

The available data from HESA shows there were almost 30,000 fewer students on language degree programmes in UK institutions in 2016-17 compared with 2010-11, a 21% decline over the period. But in crucial European languages, this drop was even greater: -45% in French, -43% in German, and -37% in Spanish. Several modern language departments have closed or downsized in this time.

Limited choices

The government’s review is keen to stress that it will create “choice and competition” across the sector. The marketisation that comes with competition, however, is not delivering choice. Without a national body to oversee provision, and to ensure that strategically important subjects are protected, institutions will tend to follow their own financial interests, recruiting only in the most popular and lucrative subjects. This can be seen with many new, private or “alternative” providers.

In the past, both chemistry and physics departments have suffered in this way as a result. Now it seems it might be the turn of Arabic and Chinese, despite the clear long-term strategic need for deeper engagement with China and the Middle East. Any move towards varying tuition fees by subject would also only intensify the perverse behaviours and market pressures that have already done such damage to the diversity of provision.

Being brave

The post-18 review offers an important opportunity to intervene and protect strategically important subjects before the decline becomes terminal. However, the government should be more ambitious – broadening its remit to ensure that the proper foundations are laid in schools to support subsequent studies in the subjects the country needs.   

Students care about what they study, but there is a real danger that unless steps are taken to maintain diversity of provision, their choices will be narrowed, and we will lose the disciplinary richness which has been so central to the strength and vitality of both our higher education sector,  and our society.

2 responses to “Our disciplines are disappearing, we need to act now

  1. As a physicist I think that Proffessor Shuttlworth could have made even more of the importance of English. Foreign languages are accepted as important for our communication with the wider world. English is important as the language with which we communicate with each other. The book of nature might be written in the language of mathematics, but to talk to each other we need a “natural” language and for many of us that language is English. The mathematicians will tell you, if they left mathematics to the scientists it would become imprecise and lack rigour. They hold us to account for our use of mathematics. The English scholars can do the same for the way all of us use of English, and for that reason the English department is central to the work of a university.

  2. Is there in fact a shortage of arts/humanities students notwithstanding a fall in key stage 5 entries as a proportion of all candidates? It is not hard to find commentators (eg employers’ groups) complaining that there is a shortage of STEM students, notwithstanding a rise in key stage 5 entries. Inferring that there are too many or too few of a particular type of student solely on the basis of such trends is not a convincing.

    A shortage of arts graduates might be evidenced by high rates of employment for arts/humanities students and a rise in their relative earnings.The surveys that have been carried out, however, are more supportive of a shortage of STEM subjects than for arts and humanities subjects. One might also look at the educational qualifications of migrants to the UK since if creative arts subjects were not generating enough graduates, the UK ought to be attracting individuals able to fill a skills shortage. Surveys of skilled migrants, however, replicate the careers data adding to the grounds for believing that it is in fact STEM graduates that the UK is short of.

    There are at the present time more than 14 million people with graduate-level qualifications living in the UK of working age. The higher education participation rate is just under 50%. Three-quarters of these students are enrolled on Arts, Humanities or Social Science programmes. It is difficult to accept that there is a shortage of any type of graduate large enough to provoke concerns that the UK faces an existential crisis. At the margin, there may be slightly too many arts/humanities students and slightly too few STEM students.

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