Degrees in danger

What’s behind the headlines about course closures, and entire subjects going the way of the dodo? Glyn Mon Hughes speaks to the experts and finds a more complicated picture than you might expect

When John Lewis boss Dame Sharon White suggested “you’ve had a decade’s worth of changes in shopping habits in a year”, she could hardly have been more succinct in her summing up of the whirlwind which shattered the high street.

Of course, universities are also providers serving consumers. As such, they’ve not only had to plan hastily for pandemic-battered operations but have also had to consider what they will be required to provide in five, 10 or 20 years’ time. Those timeframes could see massive changes in job prospects nationally and internationally, the types of business that are recruiting and the people they want to attract. All of this must be reflected in degree courses offered.

The crystal ball sitting in vice-chancellors’ offices has never been dusted down so much.

The 2020 QS World University Rankings by Subject noted the top 10 online searches for courses begin with computer science and information systems, passing through business, medicine, economics, law, engineering, architecture, art and design, and accountancy.

Why do so few women choose architecture, building and planning?


Many in UK higher education question the government’s relentless focus on science, R&D and industry, and its promotion of STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and maths – over all others. This rhetoric, argue critics, has seen a concentration on STEM subjects at A-level with the result that some subjects, including English, history and foreign languages, already beginning to disappear from universities.

Although it seems not all STEM subjects are immune. Between 1996 and 2007, for instance, 26 university chemistry departments in the UK closed – and two-thirds of those remain so.

In 2019, Bangor University announced the closure of its chemistry department.

Meanwhile, recent figures from The Knowledge Academy, on subject choice by sex, show that both sexes shy away from veterinary science and agriculture and related subjects. Males are least attracted to studying education, mass communications and documentation and, perhaps surprisingly, medicine and dentistry. Females are not attracted to architecture, building and planning courses, neither computer science nor mathematical sciences.

The reality behind the statistics is complicated


It all speaks to a complex interplay of factors, from policy to taste to budgets.

And it’s an emotive issue at times – everyone working in the sector has to balance tradition and sentimentality with pragmatism and faith in student choice. After all, centuries ago we dropped degrees in subjects such as rhetoric and logic. Today, we offer degrees in climate change. Who could argue with that trade-off?

Modern languages: have rumours of its death been greatly exaggerated?

Hesa figures showed a 21% decline in language degree programmes undertaken at UK institutions between 2010–11 and 2016–17, with those studying French falling by nearly half over the same period.

A 2019 report from the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) showed that the number of higher education institutions offering languages as a degree subject has fallen from 69 to 62. Just last month, the University of Hull confirmed its plans to suspend modern language provision while studies have revealed that 14 institutions have virtually no modern language students and a further 22 have seen figures drop 50% in recent years.

Are ‘generalist’ degrees the way forward?


Professor Emma Cayley, head of the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds, is UCML’s vice-chair of communications and external engagement. She acknowledges there has been a UK-wide drop, especially in students applying for single honours modern language courses over the last decade and more. But it may not be the death knell for the subject area.

“Increasingly, students are choosing to study languages with other subjects within or beyond arts and humanities, or combinations of languages” – Emma Cayley, University Council of Modern Languages

“It is not as significant as published Ucas end-of-cycle data for languages might suggest,” she tells UB. “This is largely because Ucas data does not always record modern languages courses which fall under combined codes. UCML is currently preparing a report on Ucas data to explore these anomalies in the published data for languages. Increasingly, students are choosing to study languages with other subjects within or beyond arts and humanities, or combinations of languages.

“Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese are more and more popular with students, though due to some narrowing in UK provision, they are not always offered – except Spanish which usually is. Courses such as modern languages with business, economics, management, international relations and politics have boomed at UK universities. This diversification and evolution of our discipline is the reason why university departments and schools of languages with breadth and diversity of offering are surviving the current dip in applications.

“It is also the reason why modern languages graduates are so employable, as they tend to have skills in another discipline together with the cultural and linguistic skills of their chosen language. Our curricula have been adapted along with our programmes to attract more students, and in the era of Brexit and Covid, they will doubtless evolve further.”

Some emerging subjects are not yet captured by Ucas data


It is now possible to study 18 languages at Leeds but, warned Cayley, “one can’t anymore assume prior knowledge of language in the UK, even for French which was usually the second language taught in schools before the government made the disastrous decision to drop the compulsory requirement for language study at Key Stage Four (GCSE) in 2004.”

Data anomalies

Harriet Barnes, head of higher education and skills policy at The British Academy, notes that there has, undoubtedly, been a long-term decline in both applications and acceptances in some humanities subjects – notably modern foreign languages and theology and religious studies – though the reality behind the statistics is more complicated than it first appears.

Many HEIs are committed to the government’s industrial strategy and keen to bring value to their local economies


“Firstly, it is difficult to interpret patterns in higher education subject data as the assignment of courses to broad subject codes can only ever be approximate,” she says. “This leads to the appearance of real yet somewhat confusing trends that show some closely specified subject areas declining in size, while in many cases corresponding broader categories are growing as universities begin to offer courses in emerging subject areas not yet captured in the code-classification system, or redesign courses to ensure students have a wider range of skills and knowledge.

“For instance, between 2014–15 and 2018–19 (the last year for which it is possible to determine trends due to the introduction of the new HECoS coding system), total student numbers for publishing, publicity studies and journalism fell by 17%, 15% and 8% respectively, but media studies, ‘others in mass communication’ and information studies grew by 14%, 11% and 3%, reflecting the evolution of the media industry and the influence of new technologies.”

Chemistry has been axed at Bangor


She also points out the sustained decline across the entire field of foreign languages, with the Academy raising the issue for many years.

“Yet there has been a 22% growth in Japanese and a 98% growth in other Asian studies as well as increasing numbers of joint honours courses where students study a language alongside another subject – and these trends are not well captured in the data. Similarly, a 24% fall in numbers for theology and religious studies between 2014–15 and 2018–19 conceals a more complex picture of how the nature of the subject is shifting – reflected in the growing number of students taking philosophy – up 19% – as courses move to look more broadly at religion as a cultural and societal phenomenon. The British Association for the Study of Religions recently explored this issue, building on the British Academy’s original report on the health of the disciplines.”

Barnes noted the importance of language learning in post-Brexit Britain, adding that the economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance, in terms of lost trade and investment, has been estimated at 3.5% of GDP.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

“There is a drive to feed perceived supply and demand,” said Charlie Ball, head of higher education intelligence for Prospects at Jisc. “Vocational degree routes could be in danger as it is often perceived that there is not much of a jobs market for graduates from these areas. Other courses which would be in danger are those which have expensive needs – chemistry, for instance, which has to provide laboratories and additional staff to run those facilities.

“Courses which would be in danger are those which have expensive needs” – Charlie Ball, Jisc

“Covid-19 will change a great deal but the graduate labour market has done relatively well and there have been no net losses of graduates in work. Generalist degree routes have proved highly adaptable and graduates have a suite of skills which can be adapted to new ways of working.”

Many HEIs are committed to the government’s industrial strategy and keen to bring value to their local economies


Creative subjects, where degree routes could well be imperilled, have suffered in the last year, with half of all creative businesses shuttered but, according to Ball, there is the will to find a way to get by. He also called for industries to provide role models which might entice potential students onto degree courses.

“Lots of institutions are committed to the government’s industrial strategy and they are also keen to demonstrate their value to local communities,” he added. “The Bank of England also reported that people are staying in jobs, so employment mobility is limited.

“Planners at universities will be looking very carefully at all the data.”

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