Humanities provision is being cut across the country, particularly in post-92 institutions. This has now hit Brighton: in early May, our senior management announced plans to cut 110 jobs from a pool of over 400 potential redundancies. The pool has been made up of staff from across the university’s Schools, but the School of Humanities and Social Science has been hit particularly hard. Our interdisciplinary subject area within that School has been hit even harder: everyone within it has been placed in the redundancy pool.
The story of how we and other institutions got to this point is familiar. Market dynamics in higher education cast students as debt-laden consumers, breeding instrumental “logics” that privilege vocational training and denigrate the exploratory and critical education that distinguishes a university from other institutions. In such a context, proudly asserting the non-instrumental nature of humanities subjects can seem quaint, naive, and unsustainable. Or, rather: it must seem so to the managers of struggling post-92 institutions like Brighton, who appear to hold that cutting the arts and humanities in favour of business-friendly STEM subjects is a route towards steady revenue. If the trend continues, places like Brighton will become technical training colleges, whilst the arts and humanities will become the sole preserve of more prestigious establishments, and of those able to study there. In short, we are faced with a policy of “No humanities for the hoi polloi!”
The goals and policies that have led us to this are of course ruinously short-sighted for any democratic polity. First, even if one accepts the demand that education must have some instrumental value, the kinds of skill and thinking afforded by the humanities have for centuries been crucial; and they remain so. For innovation, novelty, critical thinking are abilities centrally relevant to industry no less than for other areas of life — and will become all the more so as AI technology continues to develop. Second, the humanities and arts foster debate, dialogue, and the capacity to construct and dismantle arguments, enabling students to analyse texts, images, ideologies and agendas. To undermine their provision at tertiary level is hardly going to help us negotiate the growing pathologies of so-called ‘post-factual democracies’. Nor will such provision strengthen other areas of the university; quite the contrary. Without the humanities and arts universities will become monoversities. And that, to put it bluntly, is disastrous for democracy, and particularly so when access to such study becomes a privilege inaccessible to many. The humanities should be accessible to all (the clue, after all, is in the name).
Questions concerning what should be believed, what should be done, and why, are unavoidable dimensions of a recognisably human life; and the arts and humanities in particular illuminate the conduct and predicaments of such a life. They enable us to look at the ways in which such questions have been posed, answered and avoided, and at the ways in which the commitments that they articulate have played out, clashed, and failed. To study the humanities, then, is to gather resources for learning how to live well, and – more importantly – how to live well together.
In many respects, this somewhat Socratic ideal is what we have been pursuing with our interdisciplinary humanities teaching programme at Brighton. The programme started life in 1988, and has always remained centred around two key principles: assessed small-group seminar discussions (a rarity in post-92 institutions that we have fought hard to defend) – stressing the importance of oracy — and the use of humanities subjects as a means critically to engage with contemporary social life. We often take students who have not performed well in education prior to coming to us, or who do not have standard backgrounds. They frequently tell us that their experience at Brighton has been transformative: they begin to take themselves seriously, find their voices, and find that they can indeed use resources such as philosophy, history and the study of culture to address the world that they find themselves in. But all this is now under threat: as noted, every one of us on this teaching programme is currently facing redundancy. No doubt some colleagues will survive the cull, but those who remain will be working amongst rubble.
We are trying to fight back, of course, and we would be grateful if you could help us by signing and sharing this open letter: HUMANITIES UNDER THREAT UOB (and perhaps also by expressing your views to our management – addresses in the link).
We are also trying to organise and work with other departments who are under threat elsewhere, and are keen to make further connections. The current trends in UK higher education are clearly pointing towards the emergence, or re-emergence, of higher education institutions cleansed of any commitment to arts and humanities education at degree level. This will no doubt take place under the sign of student-centred practicality, of economic need and the social centrality of ‘skills-based education.’ Defending our own jobs is, therefore, a way to defend the provision of humanities education at institutions like Brighton. It is also to take a small step towards avoiding a future in which the humanities has shrunk to a rump provision ornamenting elite universities and colleges.
Words by Dr Tom Bunyard, Principal Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Brighton.