Securing a future for humanities: the clue is in the name| Letters

Prof Joe Smith, director of the Royal Geographical Society, Prof Sir David Cannadine, president of the British Academy, and Prof Norman Gowar respond to a Guardian editorial

Your editorial in defence of the humanities (13 March) is well timed and well argued. The UK needs the contribution of Stem graduates and that made by graduates with knowledge, skills and understanding gained through study of the humanities and wider social sciences. And geography, a subject that is a humanity, a social science and has part Stem designation in higher education, is well placed to make such a contribution.

For example, the cabinet office’s geospatial commission estimates that UK plc can gain £11bn through the better use of the geospatial data held by organisations including the Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and the Hydrographic Office. Yet this can only be achieved if we have enough graduates trained to understand how such data can be used to benefit our communities, environments, businesses, and policy decisions – training which is provided through the study of geography.

The political tectonic plates will continue to clash and remodel our political landscapes. However, we should celebrate how study of the humanities can help us all to understand our own and other cultures, explore the connections of the wider world, and satisfy our innate curiosity about the world’s people, places and environments.
Professor Joe Smith
Director, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)

• The Guardian’s view on the risks of cutting access to arts, humanities and social science courses is entirely and dismayingly correct. The decline in the number of students taking subjects including English, history and foreign languages is deeply concerning, and it could not be happening at a worse time. The UK faces many historic challenges and, whether it’s Brexit, climate change, or an ageing society, the insights of the humanities and social sciences are essential as we navigate our way through an uncertain present into what we hope will be an exciting and prosperous future. For over a century, the Academy has stood up for our disciplines, and it is greatly reassuring to know that we can rely on the Guardian’s support.
Professor Sir David Cannadine
President of the British Academy

• It is good to see support for the humanities at universities expressed in your leader but it does not follow as you suggest that by maintaining the current fee regime, with all that is wrong with it, universities will of their own volition protect these areas if demand slackens. A reduction of fees could be accompanied by funded initiatives such as protection for endangered subjects and reward for proven success in improving the prospects for disadvantaged students, just as support is currently provided for high-cost Stem subjects. Demand for subjects can wax and wane – some time ago mathematics and physics were in trouble but demand is now increasing. However, once a department is closed it is unlikely to be revived. It takes years to build a good department and a casual decision to close based on the “market” for it to be gone for ever. There is a national interest and responsibility to ensure a wide spectrum of disciplines is available within the system which cannot be left to the so called “market”.
Professor Norman Gowar

• Your editorial on humanities courses in UK universities is sadly correct for a perhaps less obvious reason. The major problem facing the world is climate change, which is ultimately caused by people. It is therefore notable that one of the world’s top universities, Harvard, has stated that “perspectives from across the university are required to provide leadership on how we can manage the impacts and limit the risks.” As a result, “Harvard faculty from economics, public policy, business, law, architecture, the arts and humanities all provide critical insights for how to proceed with tackling one of the greatest challenges of our time.” As your editorial concludes: the humanities matter too – the clue is in the name.
Emeritus Professor Henry Leese
Windermere, Cumbria

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