Diversity of subjects essential to national prosperity post-Brexit, warns British Academy

2 May 2018

The British Academy, the UK’s body for the humanities and social sciences, has urged the Government not to prioritise some subjects over others, arguing that a healthy, prosperous and global Britain needs a diversity of graduates.

It also warns of the risks of relying too much on market-driven solutions in a post-Brexit world.

In its submission to the Government’s review of post-18 education and funding, the British Academy highlights the contribution of graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences to the UK’s culture, economy and international reputation. Many of the 1.25m who study these disciplines each year go on to work in the service sector, which makes up some 80% of the UK’s economy. They also drive the creative industries, one of the UK’s major cultural exports. Others enter jobs of social importance such as teaching and social work.

The British Academy’s submission highlights a growing trend of universities shrinking or closing courses in subjects such as languages and philosophy. In the last decade, at least 10 modern languages departments have closed and a further nine significantly downsized.

The British Academy cites a report for the government published in 2014 which estimates that a lack of foreign language skills could already be costing the UK billions of pounds.

The Academy flags the impact of changes in A-level options, where there is a trend for students to study fewer subjects and less likely to take subjects from across the disciplinary spectrum. Entries for A-Level English and History were down 5.6% and 6.8% respectively in 2017. This decline could continue further, warns the Academy, if students perceive these subjects to be of a lower quality, or of lesser value, if they charged a lower tuition fee than others.

The Academy highlights that no one body is monitoring the provision of courses UK-wide and offers to undertake this role.

Professor Sir David Cannadine, President of The British Academy, said:

“This is an opportunity for the Government – which itself benefits immensely from the skills and knowledge of arts, humanities and social sciences graduates – to ensure that we have a highly skilled, flexible and diverse workforce for the future.

“The workforce must be one which can draw on the insights from history, politics and ethics, as well as our world-leading science, technology and engineering sectors, if we are to address the challenges we face as a nation. The understanding of people and cultures, which is what our subjects are about, is surely critical as we look to build our global links post-Brexit.

“We are eager to use our role as the national academy to monitor the provision and uptake of these strategically important but vulnerable subjects. This needs to go hand in hand with a wider framework which recognises and enhances the vital role of the arts, humanities and social sciences alongside the natural and life sciences.”

The British Academy has also analysed the provision of arts, humanities and social sciences in UK universities, including student numbers and departmental closures. 

Read the British Academy's submission to the Government's Review of post-18 education and funding.


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