Study shows wealthiest students dominate humanities and academics fear tuition fee rises will deepen problem
Jessica Shepherd, education correspondent guardian.co.uk, Sunday 26 September 2010
Fears are growing of a “gentrification” of arts and humanities degrees as new figures reveal that the courses have become the preserve of wealthy students.
Statistics released to the Observer by the Sutton Trust, an influential education charity, show that 31% of those who graduated in 2008 with degrees in history or philosophy were the children of senior managers – the socio-economic group with the highest income. Across all English university courses, an average of 27% of graduates were from this group.
Language graduates were also disproportionately from the wealthiest homes, with 30% from the highest income group. In comparison, non-arts and humanities courses – with the exception of medicine and dentistry – had far fewer students from the highest-income group. Just 17% for education, 22% for computer sciences and 23% for business studies were from the wealthiest homes. For medicine and dentistry, the proportion was 47%.
The data are part of a forthcoming study in conjunction with the London School of Economics that was done before changes that could further deter low- and middle-income students from applying for arts and humanities courses.
When Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive, publishes his review into university funding next month, he is expected to recommend to ministers that tuition fees – currently £3,290 a year for undergraduates – should rise to as much as £5,000 or £7,000 from 2013.
Browne is likely to propose generous help for poor students, but academics fear that a rise in fees could turn poorer teenagers away from degrees in the arts and humanities in favour of career-oriented courses.
Next month the government will announce its comprehensive spending review, which will cut billions of pounds of Whitehall money from university coffers. Officials are said to be considering slashing the universities’ £4.7bn teaching budget by 75%. This would hit arts and humanities courses hardest because universities have been told to protect “strategically important” subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths. Academics have warned that arts and humanities could end up only in high-ranking institutions that admit fewer low-income students.
The Sutton Trust data, which uses official figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, show that in all English universities, 19% of students come from the four socio-economic groups with the lowest income – mainly made up of those whose parents are in manual or unskilled jobs. Only 15% of those who graduated in 2008 with degrees in languages, history or philosophy had parents who were in these groups. Computer science, in contrast, had 28%.
Lee Elliot Major, director of research and policy at the Sutton Trust, said he was concerned that state schools were “so preoccupied with core exam results and league-table rankings” that less time was being devoted to the “cultural enrichment often required to excel in more creative subjects”.
Ucas figures show that while 9% of students in all degree subjects come from independent schools, the figure is 23% for language degrees and between 12% and 20% for history, classics and archaeology degrees.
The Sutton Trust believes disproportionately low numbers of low-income students enrol on arts and humanities courses, fearing they may be less employable than if they take other subjects.
Professor Ben Knights, director of the Higher Education Academy’s English subject centre, said many in his field were worried about the social class mix.
Cuts to higher education could see arts and humanities courses confined to universities that were “solidly funded and have a lot of research prestige”. Knights added: “Other universities could do other subjects. There could be a progressive gentrification of arts and humanities.” A study in 2006 showed that 43% of language lecturers were based in the UK’s 20 most research-intensive universities. Professor Michael Kelly, director of the Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies subject centre, said several language departments were scaling back in anticipation of cuts. “My expectation is that a swingeing cut to higher education funding would… [leave] languages looking quite vulnerable in a number of institutions.”