Will levelling up lead to a renaissance in the humanities?

Lydia Dye-Stonebridge ponders whether levelling up will bring a rebirth of the humanities

Lydia Dye-Stonebridge is a former policy manager.

I was probably 11 years old when my dad invited me to watch The Graduate for the first time.

Maybe there, somewhere on the cusp on womanhood and secondary education, he felt I needed a primer for the future: here are the arid prospects of an unfulfilled housewife, the fecund world of plastics, or aimlessness. You choose.

In hindsight, I wish I had given plastics more thought; my grandfather made a good living from it in the Cancer Alley that is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I embraced aimlessness, eventually landing in East London – the birthplace of plastic and now a fecund world of the Abba Voyage sort.

After a bit of vocational drift, I now advocate for the humanities and pure sciences. It pays less than plastics but it also carries less guilt.

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

The government finally has an answer to inequality outside of London and it’s plastics, or some form of locally made technological equivalent. Add government-funded culture, some new civil service neighbours, and a glittery high street, then – huzzah! – all the social justice of Renaissance Florence.

No, this explanation is obnoxious.

To me, it seems that what is meant by levelling up is partially about extending the self-same transformation we’ve experienced in East London, where the systems of health, transport, education, employment, culture, and sport coalesce into a place-specific broadening of opportunity and improvement of experience. This is a stark contrast with the lethargic despair I sometimes feel when I return to areas blighted by post-industrial decline, including where I’m originally from in America’s south.

This holistic and systemic approach does run throughout the Levelling Up white paper but there is, of course, a reassertion that technology, be it in the form of plastic or otherwise, will be a significant focus for economic development. Some people have criticised the white paper for the paucity of vision for universities but it is clear they have a significant role to play in aligned R&D and associated workforce.

The pure sciences should flourish but what does this paper mean for the humanities? Plus ca change, or the opportunity for a renaissance of its own?

Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes

In the paper, the Medici Effect gets a look in, a conceptual import from the US. The idea is that increased diversity leads to creativity and innovation. This capacity for innovation is what many would identify as the main benefit of our form of higher education, where we take a blend of subjects as part of our degree. Even MIT, an American institute of technology that gets a mention in the paper, requires its students to take humanities courses.

Of course, this multidisciplinary approach mainly happens at the institutional rather than individual level in UK higher education, but to me, this paper feels like a thawing of governmental recognition of the value of academic disciplines outside of STEM.

It’s clear that culture, design, and communication will be foundational in this agenda. There are also other positive signals about the future of the humanities, including the focus on literacy.

Michael Gove and Andy Burnham, both interknit with this agenda, are English graduates. Michelle Donelan holds a degree in history. The political buy-in for the value of the humanities is probably already there; the opportunity is now essentially the plot to David Lodge’s Nice Work – cross-sector and place-based seduction.

Either way you look at this, you lose

The issue, however, is that the humanities are consolidating in high-tariff settings, with some lower-tariff institutions shedding key programmes such as English and history. For example, in the Olympic year of 2012, UCAS tells us there were about 12,000 acceptances in JACS3 group Q – the category spanning English and the classics. Of those, about a quarter were at low-tariff institutions and about 45 per cent at high.

In 2021, the number of people starting study in this subject area has dropped to 8,800 but the mix has shifted to 13 per cent at low and 60 per cent at a high-tariff.

The overall number in high-tariff study really hasn’t changed all that much but there has been a precipitous decline at the less selective end. Although less marked, this trend can also be seen in Group V (history and philosophical studies), and in the last two intakes in Group L (social studies).

Even though a shift to higher-tariff isn’t entirely a bad thing – a point I’ll get to soon – continued consolidation will lead to access and availability issues. The effect of this can already be felt in Sunderland and Carlisle. Local course closure is not only a loss for student choice but also a loss for the community when the faculty pack their expertise bags.

Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home

Returning to group Q, what is encouraging is that proportional participation from those in the two most deprived IMD quintiles really hasn’t changed much during this time, despite the swing in study towards more selective institutions.

The recent Sutton Trust report on social mobility does show some correlation between institutional “prestige” and strong positive outcomes on those from FSM backgrounds, so it could be that a shift to high-tariff improves the economic prospects of those who study these disciplines.

But participation from these two quintiles is still only something like 30 per cent, and this under-representation runs across the pure sciences, maths, and history.

Both this paper and the revised Office for Students guidance point to the barrier presented by weak pre-entry attainment, which may help given the academic lean of these courses – but the question becomes how do you get people to aspire to study a discipline when its presence isn’t present.

We’d like to help you learn to help yourself

In order for the levelling-up agenda to succeed, it will need to achieve the following: an expansion in adult education; an improvement in literacy; diversity in place-based expertise; shifts in retail habits; strong promotion of local history and culture; co-operative political leadership; and compelling narratives to attract investment and business.

The humanities are anything but plastic and aimless. They are present in each of these levelling-up aspirations. Let us hope that they will experience a renaissance of their own. Let us shout that they are wanted.

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