Strategies for Small Subjects: Making ‘Niche’ Work to Your Advantage

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‘Small’ subjects (by which I mean to cast no aspersion on the value of the subject itself, but to refer to subjects which struggle to recruit and often have relatively few members of staff) often face difficulties in university environments that are geared up for larger staffing and student bodies, and that benefit from corresponding economies of scale. One of the side effects of marketization of the HE environment in recent years has been the creation of internal financial accounting systems. While these function in the name of financial transparency, an unintended consequence of them has been that the extent of internal cross-subsidy in HE institutions has been exposed. While this previously was understood to be a (largely abstract) consequence of offering a diverse curriculum, under modern university financial systems it has exposed so-called ‘small’ subjects to criticism and operational difficulties at best, and ‘rationalization’ or closure at worst.

So, given this situation, what can those working in such small subject areas do to offer ‘value added’ to the university?

Cross-disciplinary positioning

While all subjects need to deliver their core, specialist programmes, there may also be opportunities for a small subject to embed itself strategically across other disciplines. The constraints on this are likely to be staffing and timetabling, but there may be ways in which undertaking some small-scale cross-disciplinary teaching or joint supervision (at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, for instance) will be to everyone’s benefit. Alternatively, you might examine your own core provision and think about how it might be marketed across the university (a first year undergraduate module, for instance, could pick up students needing to fill extra credits in other subjects). You may need to design parallel assessments for different cohorts, and include differentiated entry or exit points to the module, but despite these obstacles, this can be a worthwhile undertaking, possibly even attracting new students to your subject from inside the university.

Harmonisation of workload

Interdepartmental tensions can often arise as a result of perceived inequalities of income and workload. Staff-student ratio is often a bone of contention between staff in departments with considerable student numbers and those with fewer students. Universities nowadays have attempted to address this structurally by implementing workload models, but it remains that case that such models are rarely transferable across all subjects (across STEM/ humanities, for instance). And when it comes to marking loads it can still be difficult to arrive at parity across the university, despite the best efforts of all concerned.

There is little a hard-working lecturer in a low recruiting unit can do to achieve harmonisation of assessment loads, but this can be countered by stepping up for larger, school level administrative or managerial roles.

Building a value-added narrative

A third approach can be to create ‘niche’, value-added narratives. A current example of this could be modern languages (EU and non-EU). Alongside such subjects as architecture and classics, languages have seen a significant decline in numbers in the last decade. But with Brexit and beyond, there is increased public discussion around the need to forge a large number of new relationships with countries both within and outside the EU. This could give language specialists the chance to make a strong case for the crucial role students of other cultures could play in such negotiations, and to build a powerful, public-facing narrative around this.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that the predicament of the low recruiting or ‘small’ subject area not only raises hard questions about a university’s values and core beliefs, but that there may be lessons for even the largest recruiting, most economically stable unit or subject area to consider. The broader context of the fees regime is that, despite buoyant overall application numbers, actual entrant figures show year-on-year declines in both STEM and humanities areas (since these are, of course, dependent on places, despite the lifting of the student cap a couple of years ago). In addition, the next decade or so will see a decline in the UK’s young population (a projected decrease of 12.3% between 2012 and 2020, according to this report by Universities UK). So some of these points might well be worth bearing in mind even if you find yourself working in a ‘large’ department or subject area.

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