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Subjects at risk – assessing the health of the social sciences and humanities

The British Academy is mapping trends in the study of humanities and social sciences subjects at secondary level. Debbie McVitty wonders how you define a healthy subject

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

There are fashions even in epistemology, and the popularity of different subjects of study in higher education ebbs and flows.

When these fluctuations seem to be clustering to indicate longer term trends, that can cause anxiety about the general health of a subject or cluster of subjects.

It certainly aggravates things when politicians single out certain subject areas – typically STEM – as being “strategically important”, or actively denigrate others. When the Augar panel’s report to the government’s independent review of post-18 education questioned whether the English loan system was incentivising growth of (generally cheaper to run) classroom-based subjects it fuelled a sense that non-STEM subjects are under-appreciated, under-valued, and at risk of detrimental policy intervention. Arts and humanities subjects seem particularly subject to a narrative of embattlement, but there are active campaigns to promote the value of social sciences and STEM as well.

Government policy on curriculum and funding can certainly have a direct impact on the availability and popularity of particular subjects. A reduction in the availability of arts GCSEs in England can be attributed to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate which encouraged the study of a specific mix of subjects at GCSE, for example. And the difference in the rates of the subsidies that are available to support universities to offer different subjects will clearly have some influence on which subjects are perceived to be sustainable.

But policies are more likely to reflect the prevailing fashions than set the weather – if a politician makes a crack about media studies it’s because they’re playing to an established prejudice rather than creating a new one. Which raises the question of what can realistically be done if a subject genuinely is falling out of favour or is not catching on.

Case histories

The question of evidence for all this concern brings us to the latest publication from the British Academy’s SHAPE campaign and observatory, which monitors the health, and articulates the value, of the various subjects under the SHAPE umbrella (Social sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy), and the role of those subjects alongside and interacting with science and technology within the wider economic and social ecosystem.

The recent report Studying SHAPE: 2022 tracks ten-year trends in the take-up of social science and humanities subjects at GCSE and A level for England and Wales and National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher in Scotland. The report and the associated SHAPE indicators are intended to establish a consistent and accessible evidence base for monitoring the pipeline for the study of SHAPE subjects.

As a “pure data” report it doesn’t satisfy the English graduate’s desire for narrative completion in me, but that’s all to the good – it aims to offer an evidence base that can clarify and complicate grand narratives of “decline” or “crisis”, and inform more detailed work where there is an apparent cause for concern.

Some headlines:

  • Numbers studying GCSEs in SHAPE disciplines have increased in the last decade
  • A level numbers saw a divergence in trajectories in 2015 with social sciences growing and humanities shrinking
  • In Scotland numbers are smaller and there is not a clear direction of travel but there has been rapid growth in social science advanced highers since 2019
  • At level 3 – a better indicator of popularity than level 2 which tends to be subject to greater constraints in choice – there’s generally been subject growth for economics, geography (in England but not Scotland), politics, psychology, and business (with some caveats for Scotland where numbers are low here)
  • Subjects at level 3 seeing a consistent decline are classics, theology (in England, but not Scotland), (most) languages, English (though from very high numbers and less so in Scotland), and history.

So, some cause for concern there for humanities as well as for celebration for some of the social sciences subjects – and questions about the evolution of study of social sciences at secondary level. And given the report is intended to act as a pilot for the evolution of a larger evidence base it also got me thinking about what a risk register for subject health might look like.

A critical case

Arguably if a subject is seeing a decline in absolute or relative numbers that need not mean it is not in good health. The popularity of a subject needn’t be the sole indicator of its general health – you might also look at the quality and impact of the research published in that subject, its economic and social impact if it corresponds to areas of industry or the professions, or the extent to which the UK is considered to retain specialised expertise in it compared with other countries.

Those overall numbers do represent jobs, research capacity, and course provision, though, so the size of the subject in terms of students and academics has real-world consequences. There is definitely a hypothetical critical mass below which a subject cannot thrive because there simply isn’t enough new knowledge being produced or capacity to generate impact or disseminate it. I’m just not sure we know exactly what that looks like.

At the macro level while there’s agreement in favour of rich subject diversity, there’s no obvious way of determining what the optimal balance of subjects should be in terms of numbers or “market share” of students, courses, researchers and so on. This is relevant in questioning the point at which it becomes appropriate to declare that a subject is in failing health and requires active intervention to resuscitate it. In the case of modern foreign languages there is a threat to the UK’s skills base and international competitiveness, but other subjects are less clear-cut.

It also matters because the government has in recent years actively considered the possibility of intervening around subject provision, actively attempting to shape student demand or possibly even constrain supply of courses or funding. And while that agenda appears to have taken up residence in the long grass, there’s always a possibility that a future government may take up the question of whether to make more active interventions to shape the mix of subjects.

So as ever, the more evidence and detailed thinking that can be brought to the question, the better. But even if policymakers can be convinced, I think there’s a case for a closer look at what’s driving choices – why some subjects rise or fall in popularity and what that says about perceptions of value in terms of students’ and the public’s interest and engagement with subject knowledge, and the wider social impact that knowledge is having.

One response to “Subjects at risk – assessing the health of the social sciences and humanities

  1. There’s a CHESS game afoot that’s likely to lead to further debate and infighting between the humanities and STEM. With the pseudo scientific social ‘sciences’ the likely beneficiaries I suspect it’ll be a long and bloody fight…

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