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Humanities at Risk in Britain

April 22, 2011

A spate of program closures has prompted fears for the future of the arts, humanities and social sciences at Britain's new universities, with warnings that the subjects are being closed off to poorer students.

"Post-1992 universities" -- as they are called -- are being more heavily affected by the government’s decision to withdraw the teaching grant from all but science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and some fear the creation of a new category of purely vocational institutions for disadvantaged students.

London Metropolitan University, which has the highest proportion of working-class students in the country, is to scrap subjects such as history, philosophy, performing arts and Caribbean studies. The university has unveiled a radical plan to cut the number of courses with registered students from 577 (including joint honors programs) to 160. London Met is atypical in its plans to charge relatively low fees. When the cap is raised to a maximum of £9,000 (or nearly $15,000) in 2012, the university will set some fees below £6,000 (or nearly $10,000).

Cliff Snaith, branch secretary of the University and College Union at London Met, criticized Malcolm Gillies, the institution's vice-chancellor, for seeking to deliver the "Department for Business, Innovation and Skills model of higher education."

He summed up the approach as: "We will deliver affordable degrees, which will be entirely vocational, to students who can’t afford anything else."

The University of East London, which also has a high proportion of disadvantaged students, plans to shut its School of Humanities and Social Sciences, meaning that subjects such as English and history will be housed in a new School of Creative and Digital Industries. East London says that "delivering programs that are relevant to employers' and students' future needs will maximize potential pathways to employability."

There are no course closures in the plan. However, Corinne Squire, co-director of the university's Center for Narrative Research, fears the move means that the institution’s "high-performing" humanities and social sciences provision "will become less visible and can be quietly closed."

She accused the university of "almost saying that students from low-income backgrounds don’t have a right to the humanities and social sciences."

In addition, the University of Greenwich plans to close its philosophy program.

Ben Knights, director of the Higher Education Academy’s English Subject Center, said any notion that post-92s would be returning to their polytechnic roots by becoming vocational bodies was "something of a myth," adding that "the former polys offered humanities programs back to the mid-1970s at least."

Knights highlighted the risk of "unequal distribution of cultural capital" as a result of the government’s changes, with the humanities "struggling to reach out beyond the circles of the well-heeled and those with the mobility to choose their university."

In this scenario, he said, recent successes in widening access to the humanities would be reversed, and the subjects "would once again become limited to a narrower and narrower social circle of those who could afford to indulge their interests while being reasonably sure of going on to a decent job."

Julia Swindells, professor of English at Anglia Ruskin University and former lecturer at the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education, said that "traditionally, a lot of the places in arts and humanities have been taken by women students and those subjects have offered a lot of opportunities to them." Swindells argued that the arts and humanities had been central to curriculums in the widening-participation era, a model of post-secondary education that "tried to further the interests of all sectors of society."

However, Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities, argued that London Met had taken "a specific decision to become more vocational" and that it was not necessarily correct to "extrapolate from what it has done across the piece."

Ebdon said government funding cuts had forced the hand of the new universities. "You either charge a fee to recoup the money you are losing from [the Higher Education Funding Council for England], which in many post-'92s is more than 90 percent, or you bring in massive efficiency savings."

London Met’s approach could be echoed by others in the future if the government succeeds in its aim to introduce competition from further education and private colleges to drive down prices.

Gillies said that the loss of performing arts "hurts me deeply as someone who has four degrees in performing arts." But he said there were "limits" to the extent to which students paying higher fees could be expected to "cross-subsidize" courses with low demand. Gillies added that the heaviest course reductions were not in the humanities but in London Met's business school.

 

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