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Browne, COVID and the Humanities. What next?

  • 26 November 2020
  • By Gabriel Roberts

This blog was contributed by Gabriel Roberts, who was a doctoral student in English when the Browne Report was published in October 2010. Since then, he has conducted research on writing about the value of the Humanities in the period 2010 to 2014.

It is now just over 10 years since the Browne Report was published. As well as paving the way for the increase of student fees to £9000 per annum (a move recently discussed in a previous HEPI blog), the Report instigated an intense debate about the value of the Humanities and their entitlement to public funding. At a time when funding for Humanities research was being slashed and its outputs were being audited in increasingly unpopular ways, the hike in fees was widely seen as a further challenge, since it would drive students towards subjects offering more reliable access to well-paid jobs. An extensive literature quickly appeared, objecting to these and other changes.

The debate took place against a backdrop of straitened public finances and uncertain forecasts for economic growth — circumstances reminiscent of now. Are we due, then, for another debate about the Humanities?

There are certainly signs that we may be. In June, Australia announced that fees for Humanities and some other degrees would increase by up to 113% while degrees in subjects such as the sciences would be subsidised and in July Boris Johnson suggested that the UK could see ‘reductions in the cost of science and engineering degrees, with higher fees for some arts subjects’. The same month also saw Gavin Williamson announce both that post-16 education policy would be re-angled towards further and technical qualifications and that financial assistance for universities struggling as a result of COVID19 would be contingent on them axing low value courses. All of this could be bad news for Humanities departments, which on average achieve modest results in terms of graduate earnings and progression to high-skilled jobs.

A wider set of factors may also place pressure on the Humanities to demonstrate their value. Skills relating to technology, public health and pharmaceuticals are likely to been seen as central to the post-COVID economy, while concerns about public debt are likely lead to questions about whether courses offering limited returns to public finances should be supported through student loans. The Government’s intentions in this area may be implicit in the proposed reform of the National Student Survey so that the scores that it produces for courses will correlate more closely with variables like progression to highly skilled employment. There is also the possibility that Dame Shirley Pearce’s long-delayed review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) will lead to a narrower focus on earnings and employment. Added to this, even before the pandemic, enrolment for UK Humanities courses was falling.

So, if we are due for another debate about the Humanities, what do the events of 10 years ago suggest about how things could work this time?

One feature of the post-Browne debate was that defenders of the Humanities were — as that moniker suggests — remarkably defensive. Numerous books and articles were published underlining the importance of the Humanities to culture and civilised debate, but few considered how Humanities teaching could be adapted to changing circumstances. Given the current emphasis on employment and skills, defenders of the Humanities might want to think more seriously this time around about how professionally useful skills can be integrated into Humanities teaching without diluting courses academically. They may also want to think about the interdisciplinary approach pursued by bodies such as The New College of the Humanities and The London Interdisciplinary School.

A second feature was an emphasis on ‘impact’, in large part because of the introduction of an impact criterion in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Here, there was a more dynamic response, with many academics, departments, and bodies like the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy seeking both to demonstrate the impact of Humanities research and to design research projects which would culminate in measurable impacts, although doubts persisted about the effectiveness of auditing impact through mechanisms like the REF. If a new debate about the Humanities is imminent, however, impact is unlikely to be so important, since the focus will be on whether undergraduate courses offer value for money for the government and students, not on funding for Humanities research.

Finally, as research I have conducted shows a distinctive feature of the post-Browne debate was the emphasis on ‘public value’, a term drawn from the public sector management theory of the economist Mark H. Moore. The appeal of the term is easy to understand: the Humanities were challenged to demonstrate their value, were doubtful that they could do so in economic terms and instead chose to define value more broadly. In practice, however, the emphasis on public value led to some odd results. One was that a lot of effort went into showing that the Humanities created ‘public value’ but little went into showing how it was distributed. In the current political climate, shaped by the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year and the Government’s levelling-up agenda, insouciance on this point is unlikely to be greeted with smiles.

Another result of the public value approach was a definitional quagmire, in which numerous different senses of ‘public’ (everyone, everyone minus the private sector, everyone minus those in universities, just the public sector, and so on), together with different but similar-sounding phrases (‘public goods’ and ‘the public good’, for instance), were horribly compounded. This time, if those defending the Humanities want to appeal to their more-than-economic value, they will do well to define their terms more clearly. Alternatively, they could resist the allure of abstractions entirety and argue for the Humanities’ contribution to measurable non-economic goods, such as civic engagement, environmental quality, public health and personal well-being.

Either way, they will need to find an accommodation between demonstrating the professional value of Humanities courses and convincing their critics that the value of undergraduate teaching is about more than employability, earnings and skills.

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