Decline in Interest in the Humanities Exposes Government’s Flawed Vision of Higher Education

Every August, photographers make their way to schools up and down the country looking for the faces that best capture the elation and tragedy that accompany A Level results day. In a month where readership flags and news becomes repetitive, this is the highlight for many statisticians and journalists keen to make their voices heard about the education system. However, the focus on results has diverted attention away from university applications – and the worrying trend of a decline in interest in the arts and humanities.

Although the appeal of humanities has never been as high as that of the sciences and business, an overall decline in applications to university this year of 7.4% has been felt the worse by humanities subjects. Whereas medical-related subjects have seen the number of applicants rise from around 42,000 in 2006 to over 95,000 this year, subjects such as languages, literature and social sciences have all seen only a thousand or so new applicants in total.

This is an accurate reflection of a government obsessed with privatising an economy in shreds, following an ideology that has been harnessed into the political narrative of the past twenty years that suppresses the critical and encourages the apathetic. The misguided vision of a degree in science as a gateway for career opportunities but an interest in the humanities leading to nothing more than lazy academia is one that has been part of the discourse in education since New Labour’s academies, run by wealthy technocrats, first took form.

Figures collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency prove that there is very little difference in the percentage of the unemployed depending on the nature of their degrees. In fact, degrees such as engineering and technology or computer science have statistically more unemployed graduates than those graduating with a language or history degree.

Although it is convenient for a government that is keen to micromanage education and dictate the terms best befitting a country with a broken economy, encouraging those subjects more reluctant to critique the nature of the economy itself is surely far worse for the country than any recession.

Figures such as Sally Hunt, leader of the Universities and Colleges Union, have increasingly attempted to highlight a significant failure in regulation of the education system. This has come to a head over the announcement of Pearson, the international publishing firm, becoming a for-profit provider of higher education. As the first FTSE 100 company to do so, it marks an increase in the number of private education providers in the UK. Hunt claims that private universities do not receive the necessary level of scrutiny by the government, and as such is “risky” for the state of education in this country.

Controversy earlier this summer over the reforms of the EPSRC, the body responsible for funding the Physical Sciences, demonstrates how the ‘usefulness’ of knowledge has been decided by technocrats and bureaucrats outside of the field of knowledge itself. The failure of critical regulatory bodies to hold the government and education systems to account is preventing the development of a country with an open and rounded education system. This stifles the development of its citizens who, as a result, are unable to look critically at the political and economic systems that govern them.

Emily Tripp

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