Prompted by University of Queensland’s Graeme Turner, Mark Bahnisch has a pair of posts over at Larvatus Prodeo asking rhetorically whether the Humanities at Australian universities are dying. As Turner puts it:
ONCE, the humanities were fundamental to the idea of the university. Now science is at the core of the research mission of the Australian university, and professional training at the core of its teaching mission.
The humanities fight for space in each of these domains as the recognition of their importance declines.
In research the humanities receives a fair whack of funding from governments but very little from the corporate sector.
In terms of teaching (undergraduate enrolments), however, initial observation of DEEWR statistics doesn’t seem to bear out this pessimism, with 36,363 of 134,883 EFTSL (students) in 2009 falling under the “Society and Culture” category which includes the humanities and social sciences. That’s around 25% and it grew by a modest but respectable 5.1% from the previous year.
However the picture looks significantly less healthy when you strip out vocational/professional disciplines like law and psychology, and positively terminal if you focus on regional and even smaller metropolitan universities. Enrolments in the “soft” humanities and social sciences (English, history, political science, philosophy, religion, sociology, anthropology) are clearly under severe pressure.
The likely reasons are not hard to find. In the wake of the Dawkins revolution when teachers’ colleges and CAEs were transformed into universities and universal HECS fees were introduced, and with universities increasingly reliant on full fee-paying international students to stay afloat in the face of declining federal funding (until very recently), it was inevitable that students’ enrolment decisions would be dominated by public perceptions of the likely immediate vocational payoff from “investment” in a university degree. The soft humanities tend to do poorly on such perceptions. Academic Kerryn Goldsworthy (PC) observed:
Whenever I had to do the excruciating departmental shift at Melb U Open Day making nice with the Year Twelves, I would field the unending line of well-dressed fathers saying ‘But if she does English, what sort of job will it help her to get?’ with the standard answer that we would mould her into such a paragon of clear thinking, good written expression and broad understanding of human nature that employers in all sorts of fields would be falling over themselves to give her a job — at least if they had any brains, and who wants to work for a moron, right? Oh okay, I didn’t say that last bit.
Someone rather more cynically responded:
See, PC, you just didn’t know how to sell your English degree. With all that understanding of human nature you should have been able to size up those dads in a flash: our graduates become school teachers in country towns ’till they marry a fabulously rich farmer, or, our graduates become advertising executives and are all driving Porches before they’re 25 ….
Unfortunately these public perceptions of the commercial/vocational value of the soft humanities may be rather more formidable (or perhaps self-fulfilling) than this suggests. Recent UK research found:
Researchers compared the fortunes of around 80,000 people – graduates and those who left school or college after their A-levels – between 1997 and 2009.
It found a large earnings premium for women, regardless of their subject or degree grade. The report took account of student debts and higher tax returns.
Average woman with a degree in the arts, humanities or social sciences, as well as “combined” subjects, could expect to earn £25,000 more per year on average, said the report. This was equivalent to some £1m more over their working life.
But the report found the premium for a man could be less.
Men leaving school with A-levels earned an average of £35,000 a year, according to the study.
Those taking law, economics or management degrees could expect to earn an additional £30,000. The earnings premium for students taking combined degrees was £16,000 and those with science, technology, engineering and mathematics was £5,000.
But the study found the earnings premium for arts, humanities and social science degree – which can include fine art, music, drama, history, philosophy and theology – can be “effectively zero”.
My problem is that I agree with Kerryn Goldsworthy about the actual inherent value of a broad liberal tertiary education, so I’m hoping to focus some of the giant lateral thinking brains here at Troppo on the problems as I see them:
- Is it feasible to get more modern undergraduate students exposed to and educated in the “soft” humanities and social sciences at least to some extent? How? Or must we accept that the times have irretrievably changed with mass higher education to a relentlessly narrow vocational focus?
- In particular, how could this be done in smaller regional universities like the one where I teach?
- Is there a useful point in considering compulsory “Foundation Studies” units in the soft humanities which ALL students (including the vast majority enrolled in narrowly vocational programs) would be obliged to study? Or would such units inevitably be so “dummed down” as to negate any real broad liberal educational value for the Great Unwashed Masses while diluting necessary rigor for the minority of serious humanities students?