The British Academy’s manifesto for the social sciences, humanities, and arts

Right now, lots and lots of universities are reviewing their course portfolios to identify what mix of subject offerings will ensure their ongoing financial sustainability.

They will be looking – to the extent they have sufficiently granular data on it, which is another story – at the costs of teaching, the level of current and probable future student demand, and the wider value and impact of subjects for the economy, public services, and culture.

There will be questions about how a subject is presented in recruitment and marketing, where the focus of the curriculum is, the alignment with the department and institution’s research specialism or industry expertise, and how teaching and learning are structured. None of this is straightforward, because everything has value – of course it does. And much of what drives subject demand is well beyond a university’s control.

We don’t currently know exactly what the outcome of those reviews is or will be in the years ahead but there is a widespread concern that the disciplines disproportionately affected will tend to be in what the British Academy calls SHAPE disciplines – social sciences, humanities, and arts for people and the economy.

The British Academy’s manifesto for the General Election starts with a reminder of just how essential the SHAPE disciplines are to the world’s future, in deepening the collective understanding of “cultures, histories, geographies, languages, institutions, economies, behaviours, laws and beliefs.”

The manifesto then focuses its attention on policy that would create the conditions for those disciplines – and indeed all disciplines – to continue to thrive.

Education, research, international

The first “ask” on higher education funding is deceptively simple, calling for:

An urgent review of higher education funding to deliver a sustainable model that delivers a wide breadth of subjects and is resilient to regional inequalities in provision.

The current model of HE funding in England is subject and place-agnostic in that it’s led pretty much entirely by what students want to study and where. The version of HE funding the Academy is calling for would potentially balance the current emphasis on student demand with attention to place and subject provision. This needn’t be entirely against the grain of the current model though – students’ choices are constrained by what is available and their ability to travel for study so arguably what is being proposed here is a more nuanced sense of the student interest.

The Academy also wants to see “a broad, balanced, and interconnected school curriculum” which could help to address the pipeline of demand for the subjects that are currently struggling. But it could also point to a different approach to learning than has been the dominant mode in the UK: that of ever-increasing subject specialism. Labour has already promised to review the school curriculum to introduce more of a focus on creativity, digital skills, and oracy, while the Conservative policy is for the introduction of an Advanced British Standard that would broaden the subjects taken at level 3. This speaks to a wider trend towards breadth that could have a mixed impact on the SHAPE disciplines and university study more generally that has yet to be explored.

There is a plea for increases to public sector funding for research, with stability of funding and equitable distribution among disciplines, for government to integrate insights from SHAPE into its thinking around key technologies (I’m assuming AI is the big one here but other technologies are available), greater collaboration across ministerial portfolios (we can but dream), and investment in museums, galleries, and libraries.

On international collaboration the Academy wants the UK to rejoin Erasmus Plus, play a more active role in shaping the next round of European Framework Programmes, and restore the Official Development Assistance budget to 0.7 per cent of GDP.

As well as calling for an immigration system that explicitly values the international character of higher education, there is a proposal to reduce the costs of researcher mobility by cutting visa fees and surcharges. The final ask is around the UK extending the sanctuary it has offered to researchers at risk in Ukraine to those in similar positions around the world.

The future of SHAPE

There is much in all of this that the whole sector would agree with, especially around research funding increases, reform of the immigration system, and for the UK to repair its fractured engagement with European research and mobility programmes. Though while most of these policy agendas would generate straightforwardly good outcomes, none of them are politically easy to deliver.

But there’s a bigger job for the British Academy and indeed, anyone who is concerned with the future of the SHAPE disciplines. The defence of SHAPE subjects is too often grounded in an assumption that the fundamental value of these subjects is under-appreciated outside the academy. I think, conversely, that arguments about the value of the UK’s creative and cultural industries, and the importance of interdisciplinary solutions to global challenges, as well as the simple human value of deepening our collective cultural understanding of ourselves and each other, is all fairly well understood.

Choices about distribution of funding or whether to engage with SHAPE research in the context of new technologies, for example, are more likely to be grounded in perceptions of the extent to which something requires policy or funding to make it happen, the costs and benefits involved, the availability of other funding sources, and so on. Some of this thinking might be faulty, or out of date, and should be called out where it is, but it’s probably not in most cases grounded in a generalised desire to remove funding or political support from SHAPE because of a specific animus towards those subjects.

The challenge then is to imagine how the intrinsic value of SHAPE can best be realised in a context where the funding is tight, and there are too many policy priorities for everyone to get what they deserve. That could mean rethinking some long-held assumptions about how subjects divide up, or how SHAPE disciplines manifest in education settings, or it could mean setting priorities for specific technologies or challenges for interdisciplinary focus. Hopefully, though, that is not thinking that the champions of SHAPE disciplines will have to undertake alone.

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