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New research by Academy of Social Sciences and Lancaster University spotlights the health of UK social sciences in a time of change

Today the Academy of Social Sciences and Lancaster University have published new research spotlighting how the social sciences in UK higher education have navigated the unprecedented challenges triggered by Brexit, COVID-19 and higher education policy changes since 2020. They emerged, for the most part, robustly and made outstanding contributions to helping the UK to respond to the challenges and opportunities it faced. They face in turn new challenges that may jeopardize the strength of their ongoing contribution.

The key findings of the project, informed by qualitative and quantitative research and secondary data at the institutional level, serve to sharpen perspectives on the trends, challenges and opportunities emerging across the sector now, and over the coming years.

The overarching messages of the report are:

Social sciences across HE as a whole are confident and strong – emerging from the pandemic better than had been feared in many, but not all, institutions. This owes much to the huge collective effort from the social science community to deliver online teaching and support, unanticipated increases in student numbers owing largely to A Level and Scottish Highers marking processes in 2020 and 2021, and continuing robust demand from international students for taught masters courses.

A strong social science research base has allowed universities to make a profound contribution to understanding and helping to address major challenges and opportunities of our time through prominent and significant contributions to COVID and Brexit research and a high public profile in informing pandemic management.  For example, nearly 50% of grants awarded in the UKRI COVID rapid research call were competitively awarded to the social sciences.

However, there have been negative impacts at a more granular level that need to be addressed. Impacts on research activity over these years are highly individualised and varied, depending on career stage, gender, additional work and leadership responsibilities, research methodologies employed in research, and changes to funding allocations. Three particularly vulnerable groups were identified, prime among them being early careers researchers and postgraduate students. The report is calling for additional support to facilitate catch up in the career development of this important body of researchers.

To ensure that the social sciences continue to provide high quality evidence and advice, it is crucial that the on-going effects of the disruptors in the system, both established and evolving, are monitored as the disruptors will produce continuing complex, dynamic and rapidly evolving change that needs to be controlled and mitigated. At the same time, the social sciences will play a vital continuing role in supporting the national response to this dynamic context. Consequently many of the action points in the report reflect this, making proposals for the future both in terms of monitoring of ‘at risk’ elements in the social sciences ecosystem and by recommending areas where the social sciences have a particular contribution to make.

The report identifies several challenges that jeopardizes the ability of the social sciences community to continue to achieve current high levels of contribution in the future to understanding and addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.  The most notable for the system as a whole are:

  • The squeeze on teaching funding with the ongoing tuition fee freeze (frozen for 7 years since 2017-18).  
  • Greater vulnerability of some post-92 institutions to the disruptor trio and the potential impact of that on agendas of social mobility, regional levelling up and the provision of some key workers.  
  • Current uncertainty over access to EU Horizon funding, with its increasing focus on social science research, and what the UK government might replace it with. The sector is facing high risk to 25% of its research funding at a time when the need for social science contributions are greater than ever, as so well demonstrated in recent months and years.

15 key findings are outlined in the report, together with 17 action points targeted at relevant organisations, including UKRI, OfS, BEIS/DLUCH and universities.

Commenting on the significance of the Social Sciences in a Time of Change project and what this reveals about the current health of UK social sciences, Academy of Social Sciences CEO and co-PI on the project, Dr Rita Gardner CBE FAcSS said:

Given the unprecedented set of external disruptors affecting the HE system in the past two years it was vital that we had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the impacts on the social sciences specifically. This will enable the community to focus time, energy and resources on those areas most in need of action now, further research, and monitoring for longer term impacts. The purpose is to ensure that the social sciences retain their strength, vibrancy and, above all, their essential contributions to understanding and helping address many of the biggest social, economic and environmental challenges we face today.”

Commenting on the project’s research findings and priorities to be tackled across the sector now and into the future, Professor Tony McEnery FAcSS, co-PI on the project said:

“The UK has an incredible asset in its social sciences research base – in areas as diverse as informing  economic  policy, understanding the public reaction to vaccination campaigns and developing policies around teaching practice. This report shows that the social science community is also very resilient and positively engaged with contemporary research challenges. Through this report we have produced an insight that provides an opportunity to foster the social sciences to the continued benefit of all.”

As grant funders of the project, ESRC welcomed the report. Interim Executive Chair Professor Alison Park FAcSS said:

“This report helps us understand how COVID-19, Brexit and Higher Education policy changes have affected the social sciences. The social science community responded swiftly and effectively to the pandemic, and I am pleased to see that these efforts are recognised by higher education leaders across the sector. It is also reassuring to see that some of the feared worst effects of Brexit have not to date occurred. However, we know the impacts of these events will continue to play out over the years to come. This useful report will be a key part of the evidence that informs our ongoing work to support a diverse and healthy social science community which can contribute to solving the urgent challenges we face.”

See the report here.

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