“The Humanities are not an optional extra - in this changing world, we need them more than ever” – Academy President champions power of the humanities in Birmingham speech, as the Academy releases its manifesto

31 May 2024

President of the British Academy Professor Julia Black has delivered an urgent intervention on the power and value of the humanities at the University of Birmingham.

Part of Birmingham University’s “Transformative Humanities” series, Professor Black’s speech, entitled “Humanities in a Changing World” took place as the British Academy released its manifesto setting out what the next government must to do to strengthen social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy (SHAPE), to tackle the UK’s biggest challenges.

Professor Black’s remarks drew from her own scholarship on regulation - in particular, notions and theories of what organisations must do to gain legitimacy - to suggest several ways the humanities community can react to critiques of the subjects’ value and better demonstrate how they are essential for a thriving society. It also set out how the British Academy is making the case for and supporting the humanities and social sciences.

Speaking to what can be done to combat the mounting challenges facing humanities provision in UK universities, Professor Black commented:

“The model of university funding for teaching and research needs to be urgently revisited, but exactly who within this government or the next is willing to take responsibility for the current situation is far from clear. Universities are told to sort themselves out, but their ability to do so is hampered by the limits set by government (including in the devolved nations) on the fees they can charge home students, on the level of costs they will enable funders to cover for research, and on the Home Office’s immigration policy. Indeed, it is not at all clear who believes that the sector’s financial resilience is its problem at all.

The UK can rightly be proud of the research and teaching of humanities in our universities. One of the unique hallmarks of the UK’s research base is that we are strong across all the disciplines, both SHAPE and STEM, whether as measured in QS rankings or as recipients of European research funding. I would also argue that a thriving humanities landscape is a hallmark of a strong liberal democracy, where academic freedom and the right to critique are held as important values – as features, not bugs. When governments or leaders censoring the arts or humanities is, that is, for me, the ‘canary in the coal mine’; an early warning signal that the health of a democratic system is deteriorating.

But in the current context, when both public and private finances are strained, the fact that financial cuts are impacting the humanities shows that we need to re-energise support for them across the board – from students and government, to taxpayers and voters.

Even explaining what the humanities are to a mainstream audience – and in our 24/7 media and social media age, an audience with limited time and attention - is a significant challenge. And even if the value of understanding humanity is accepted, we know from the tenor of much public discourse that the value of pursuing a degree in humanities, or in funding research into it is not seen to have such intrinsic value.

We need constantly to reinforce the fundamental connection between humanity and the humanities. Now is an opportune time to make that connection as the explosion of AI into public consciousness and use prompts fundamental questions on the nature of humanity to expand beyond the confines of academic conferences and into public discourse. The increase in geopolitical tensions which have their roots in tangled histories, clashes of cultures, religions and identities; the interactions between people and the planet, the role of expression, fiction and narrative in helping us make sense of emotions and events; the role of understandings of people, culture and societies not just in critique but in the construction of new paths forward – all of these are matters for the humanities can tackle. Humanities scholars are and should be at the forefront of those debates, emphasising in a positive and constructive way what is intrinsically valuable about understanding the nature of humanity.”

Concluding her remarks, Professor Black said:

“The Humanities are not an optional extra - in this changing world, we need them more than ever. We need to understand who is questioning their value and their relevance – and we need to know how to communicate and reach those different communities on whom we rely for support – and indeed, for our legitimacy.”

The full speech is available to read on the Academy's website.

The British Academy will soon publish a new series of data-driven maps highlighting cold spots in access to humanities and social science in UK higher education. Illustrating areas where students are left deserted, unable to study specific subjects in their home regions, the maps are set to be the next major release to the Academy’s SHAPE Observatory - a platform providing the latest evidence on the health of the humanities and social sciences.

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