“British education is marked by an overly narrow specialisation of the curriculum which fails to prepare young people for the economy of tomorrow. Britain is an international outlier […] and almost unique in the western world, for an advanced economy and all high-performing education systems, in allowing people to drop maths and stop studying their native language at 16. In Germany, France, Asia, youngsters are studying maths all the way to 18 and in the way a modern economy works, I think it’s going to hold us back if our youngsters don’t have those skills.”
“We must reform post-16 education to give parity to vocational education – and phase out degrees that do not improve student’s earning potential.”
Rishi Sunak. MP. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Conservative. Leadership Campaign 2022.
“…the truth is that today some degree courses offer very little in return, saddling their students with huge debts without improving their life chances. Research suggests that about 20 per cent of current undergraduates will be left poorer as a result of going to university. This cannot be right.”
Nick Gibb. MP. Bognor Regis & Littlehampton. School Standards Minister 2015 to 2021.
“I think any degree is valuable. It’s not so much the subject as what it does to create methods of thought.”
Tam Dalyell. 9 August 1932 – 26 January 2017. Former Science Spokesman and Father of the House. Labour. [MP for 41 years, switched from studying for a degree in Mathematics to History after entering King’s College, Cambridge]
“I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.”
“Universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.”
“I argue that what I described as the medieval concept of a community of scholars seeking truth is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that. We might do it at say a level of a hundredth of what we do now and have one university of medieval seekers after truth that we thought were very good, to support them as an adornment to our society.”
“I don’t think that we will have the level of funding that we do now for universities unless we can justify it on some kind of basis of the type I have described.”
Charles Clarke [disputed], Former Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Labour. Speaking at University College, Worcester 2003
“We need the humanities because its subjects – history, literature, philosophy and the like – provide us with an essential understanding of what it is to be human: where we have come from, who we are, and what we might become.”
“They teach us that the discernment of truth from falsity can only come from free debate, not just among ourselves but in conversation with the best that humankind has produced in the past.”
“They inform, inspire, and also warn. And by giving us knowledge of the best and worst of which humankind has been capable, they free us from the myopia of the moment: the arrogant delusion that our own times are uniquely endowed with insight into what is virtuous and right.”
“Without the humanities, we are not only impoverished as individuals and as a society; we are also infantilised, for like a child we are even unaware of what we lack.”
Professor John Adamson, Fellow of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge and Director of the Humanities Research Institute of the University of Buckingham.
“Good humanities graduates are not merely educated in a rounded fashion, but have skills employers want. In 2019 research by LinkedIn found that the three most wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration. One of the top five “hard skills” was people management, which an empathetic humanities graduate taught to think for him or herself should find straightforward.
Two senior Microsoft executives recently wrote: “As computers become more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important … [they] can teach critical philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of all solutions.” A 2015 study of 1,700 people from 30 countries found that most in leadership roles had a social sciences or humanities degree.”
The Telegraph. How Britain abandoned Classical Education. 2022.
As students face upcoming GCSE and A Level results Days in the UAE, British education has been placed centre stage in a battle taking place in the UK between UK politicians Liz Truss MP and Rishi Sunak MP who are both vying for the role of Britain’s Prime Minister following the resignation of Boris Johnson. Whoever eventually wins, many believe that Britain’s educational system has never been in a less stable, more precarious position as the accepted, and seemingly unassailable wisdom that A Levels are the gold standard global qualification – and immune from any need to ever change, and that a UK degree, any degree has inherent value, are both called into question.
The stakes could not be higher for British education, with criticism of studying the humanities and classics never more vocal, with subjects that do not need the economic or social demands of the market now openly threatened with withdrawal of funding. No one should discount the risks, according to commentators – the UK government has shown itself already willing to break up the education system as it dismantles BTEC qualifications in favour of T Levels. The winners in this posited new world? STEM subjects, vocational qualifications and the market. The losers? The Classics, Humanities and any subject that does not lead directly to well-paid employment.
The current plans being touted propose the following changes and findings:
- Degrees to be graded on 2 counts with funding withdrawn where they are not met:
- (1) social value – the roles that society / the market needs at any given time, for example where there are shortages (utility), as is the case with nursing
- (2) financial outcomes for students (materialism) – based on drop-out rates, numbers in graduate jobs and earning potential
- English degrees, Arts, Classics and Humanities seen as falling short on both counts compared with STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)
- Change deemed required because
- Student debt routinely exceeding £50,000
- Social shortages in non academic careers
- Markets, not interest groups including educationalists, must now define the value of educational qualifications
- Vocational degrees and T Levels will be strengthened as they push more students into STEM and away from the Arts, Humanities and Classics
- Students are now to be recognised as customers with rights to return on investment, not learners
- Role of universities to be principally as “economic agents” of the market and government policy
- Creation of a priority Russell Group of technical colleges enabling students to graduate with degrees with social and economic value
- Creation of new British Baccalaureate requiring all pupils to continue studying core subjects including Mathematics until they finish school at 18
- Parity of esteem to be established between vocational and academic subjects by uprating value of vocational subjects and downgrading value of academic subjects.
- Sheffield Hallam University drops English literature course ‘because graduates struggle to get highly paid jobs…” this despite 70 per cent of graduates of Sheffield Hallam’s English literature degree gaining graduate entry level jobs.
- Total number of humanities students at UK universities has fallen by around 40,000 in the past decade
- Between 1961/62 and 2019/20, the proportion of UK students studying humanities subjects fell from around 28% to around 8%.
- Since 2016, almost all humanities subjects have seen a fall in A-Level entries larger than the decline in the 18-year old population.
- 28.5 per cent drop in the past decade in History of Art
- Acceptances for English studies, including English literature, fell from 9,480 in 2012 to 6,435 in 2021.
Backgrounder: “The Humanities in Modern Britain – Challenges and Opportunities” study of British Education by Gabriel Roberts for the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The gradual weakening of the Humanities is addressed in a pioneering report below – but there are differences in how British Education should respond from those who would support the Humanities, those who would incorporate vocational and technical education within them and those who would downgrade the subjects.The-Humanities-in-Modern-Britain-Challenges-and-Opportunities
Bottom Line? Change is coming.
So where does this potentially leave British education as we approach GCSE and A Level Results Days?
The first takeaway is that many of these changes are likely to see at least a decade to materialise in some form or other. Until then, students in the Humanities should take comfort from the comments of technology pioneers like Google and Microsoft that intellectual innovation, creativity and communication skills – all integral to study in academic subjects, are, and will remain, hard currency. However, many will also now be remembering the chaotic years in which British Education switched between O Levels, CSEs, GCSEs and BTEC- and the divisions that exist today between those who mourn the passing of academic O Levels and those who argue that British qualifications have never been tougher. Yes, it is possible that many if not all of today’s British qualifications will end up as a footnote in history, but it’s not happening tomorrow.
Second, these changes are already happening – and have been for at least twenty years. For example, many people still believe that directly choosing to study a vocational Law degree at university, rather than studying another degree and completing a Conversion, leaves LLB students with a fundamentally flawed and intellectually neutered education. It may be good for the market and a student’s bank balance short term, but, for many, it leaves them at an intellectual disadvantage, and with regrets, for the rest of their lives. The same can be said of business degrees, Medicine degrees – and any number of other degrees limited only to a vocation. It does look like the balance of power has now firmly swung in favour of the market and politicisation of education as students vote with their feet and “follow the money” – and have been for decades.
Not everyone agrees that the days of A Levels, in the face of the projected new golden age of a British Baccalaureate, are numbered. However, the British government has been consistent in funding and supporting the International Baccalaureate in the UK. Many ask whether they will need to reinvent the wheel if A Levels are eventually abolished or made to stand along side a Baccalaureate qualification. As it stands today, many now argue that the IB, in a face off with A Level, now has the upper hand as a more relevant qualification. The specialisation strengths of A Level are being downgraded in importance as industry and government increasingly push the value of interdisciplinarity. Interestingly, however, it may well be the IB Career-related Programme, rooted in a vocational qualification and industry links, rather than the purely academic Diploma Programme, that becomes the more valued, and modelled, qualification in the years to come.
There is more consensus that GCSEs will disappear as their primary justification, originally based on providing school leavers at age 16 a qualification for employment, has become redundant. Their value today resides almost entirely in their use as an entrance pre-qualifier to BTEC/T Level and A Level study. In practice then, many believe that GCSE examinations are already downgraded in standing – and the power now rests much more in internal school decision-makers as guardians of the gateway choices students can make for post-16 study. This means that schools arguably need to be much more adaptable to the specific needs of students – many children develop later for example which calls into question a cliff edge exam deciding what subjects students can go on to study at Sixth Form without bigger picture consideration.
The days of BTEC are probably limited whether A Levels, or an alternative Baccalaureate post-16 qualification, comes to dominate academic British Education at Sixth Form in future years. T Levels are likely to remain as the technical standard in British post-16 education. This however, does not mean that current BTEC qualifications have lost their value, or face losing value. What it does probably mean is that UAE schools need to start exploring the implications of an eventual move to T Levels. It may also mean that students in the UAE set on a specific career for which there is already a T Level option in the UK, may well best be advised to return to the UK for Sixth Form. More on the abolition of BTEC here.
Finally, students graduating from UAE schools this year that are not set on a career in academia and, rather, set on a career in industry, arguably need now to be looking at Degree Apprenticeships. These are the new ‘holy grail’ in education in which employers pay for degree study and pretty much guarantee future employment at a senior level in industry. If students are set on a a career, why incur the debt?
These in turn highlight another key factor as British Education faces years of major structural change ahead of it – schools career advisors have never been more important in advising students, fighting for their choices inside school and on graduating – and building industry partnerships through internships.
Two particularly inspiring examples of Degree Apprenticeships follow:
Degree Apprenticeships at Rolls Royce
Rolls-Royce does accept apprenticeship applications from the UAE, subject to your having a right to work in the United Kingdom.
Full details and application here.
Degree Apprenticeships at Ernst & Young (EY)
“You don’t need a degree to start a successful career in business. Our work experience and apprenticeships give you the chance to build your career in our world, your way.”
Salary: up to £22,100
Locations: Bristol, Leeds, London, Liverpool, Reading, Southampton, Newcastle, Manchester
Degree Apprenticeship positions:
- Business Leadership and Management Practice. More here.
- Assurance. More here.
- Supply chain consulting. More here.
- Turnaround and Restructuring Strategy. More here.
- Tax. More here.
- Tax Technology and Transformation. More here.
- Digital Technology. More here.
The Telegraph broadsheet article on how Britain Abandoned Classical Education can be read here.
Do you think British education has lost its relevance and had its day? Are IGCSEs still important – or should schools abolish them? Is the IB a better qualification than specialised A Levels? Are degree apprenticeships – and a degree without debt, the future of universities? Is it time to forget the Humanities and focus on STEM? We would love to hear from you. Email [email protected] in complete confidence to share your thoughts.
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