The Humanities – passed on or just pining for the fjords?

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:

  1. 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?
  2. In particular, how could this be done in smaller regional universities like the one where I teach?
  3. 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?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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19 Responses to The Humanities – passed on or just pining for the fjords?

  1. Jacques Chester says:

    Also discussed at Sketiclawyer, with a wide-ranging comments thread.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    quick answers:

    1. Forget what is formerly known as humanities. Business is the new arts and humanities, teaching much the same stuff (bit of this, bit of that. No maths). You are not seeing the demise of the skills taught, but a re-labeling.

    2. Relabel. Call yourself executive management education. Perhaps throw in the word ‘excellence’ if it still has currency where you live. Increase your fees and put on a suit.

    3. Good luck with that battle. All schools want the center to guarantee them their jobs by making their subjects compulsory. You will be in a hell of a fight to get it through as all the other schools will be your enemy. And yes, of course any large compulsory classes will be dummed down. The universities have no incentives to fail anyone.

  3. conrad says:

    “Relabel. Call yourself executive management education”

    Or criminology, or internet technology, or gaming, or ….

    “The universities have no incentives to fail anyone.”

    And the teaching staff have strong disincentives.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Introduce a major in Philistine studies. A BA(Phil) would involve a major in some professional discipline (to pick up the Philistine requirement) and the rest in humanities.

  5. Mel says:

    All RMIT students were required to do four “Foundation Studies” units back in my day. I thought it was a good idea.

  6. Andrew Norton says:

    I’ve never seen a detailed analysis of enrolment trends by discipline, but at the broad level there does not appear to have been any significant long-term change in the proportion of students applying for or doing arts or similar courses.

    Given the big expansion in uni places over the last generation, that means that a larger proportion of the population has an arts degree than at any earlier time in our history.

    We should be careful about dismissing other courses as ‘narrow’. Breadth is doing subjects across disciplines. Someone who only does humanities is as narrow as someone who only does accounting (and its much easier to pick up humanities in your spare time than accounting).

    The big question is whether a contemporary arts education is worth the time and effort, intellectually speaking. Generally it does not provide a good financial return.

    BTW, per student federal funding has declined through most of the Rudd-Gillard years, except for 2008 when the last of the 2005-08 Howard increases flowed through. A new indexation system that will mantain the real value of per student funding partially starts in 2011 and fully in 2012.

  7. Ken Parish says:


    I’m familiar with enrolment patterns at my own university and a handful of other regional universities, and it’s fairly clear that enrolments in soft humanities disciplines are under major pressure whereas law at least remains strong. I strongly suspect that the global DEEWR figures disguise those differences. Incidentally, Graeme Turner is clearly aware of this issue judging by his comment: “In some of the regional universities, as well as in some of the more vocationally oriented metropolitan campuses, it is hard to see humanities programs of any quality surviving.”


    The BA(Phil) would certainly have major attractions from an accessibility viewpoint. Many of our students could be awarded 1st class Honours immediately based on “life experience” like those dodgy online “universities” who occasionally send spam along with the Viagra ads and Nigerian fraudsters.

  8. Russell says:

    Re your questions …. perhaps in the major metro centres you could target the 50-70 age group as potential humanities students. Part of the present huge market for new-age, self-improvement, family history pursuing, vocationally educated, or people who did a B.A. 30 years ago but now looking for more, kind of people.

    Courses which are mostly on-line provided, but with tutorials/seminars offered on the weekends – Saturday afternoon? Many middle-aged to older people are interested in philosophy, not as the basis for an academic career, so emphasis might shift slightly, but they may ne able to get the education without ever paying HECS (if they’re retire).

    Perhaps it’s better not to pretend that a humanities education is a kind of vocational training suitable for teenagers, but look at it as satisying a natural curiosity about life, a stretching of the mind for the pleasure that brings, a journey into further dimensions of ‘the life of the mind’ that seem more interesting as we get older.

  9. Andrew Norton says:

    Ken – There may well be regional differences. When I get a few hours sometime I will dig deeper into the enrolment data, though unfortunately a change in classification methods 10 years ago can make long-term comparisons imprecise.

    If U of M is a guide, the problem is not total student numbers, which are fine, but the cost of having large numbers of relatively small enrolment subjects.

  10. Stephen Bounds says:

    Why would I do an Arts degree? At its best, Arts subjects provide a rigorous and considered framework to grapple with our current and historical collective humanity.

    But realistically … aside from that framework, what can I get from a University Arts degree that I can’t get from visiting a website like Club Troppo?

  11. Richard Green says:

    I was thinking of making a similar point to Stephen, although not as praising of Troppo.

    It has never been easier to self educate yourself in the “soft” humanities (not just because of the internet as a medium to present and discuss knowledge, but the access it gives to texts through amazon and opinions on those texts, or even things like The Teaching Company), and if someone seeks knowledge in the field for the inherent value of the subject, why would they pay a university (in both time and money)? They don’t need the degree to signal to others, especially not employers, since they’re not seeking a vocational return, just the inherent value of the knowledge and thinking.

    So if a student desires that knowledge, they can get it easily whilst getting a degree they think can pay the bills. If they’re not motivated intrinsically, and need the discipline of a marking regime to make them learn, is it worth it?

    We may be facing the death of humanities as a profession, rather than as a field of study. This might still be a problem – we may still need professional sociologists and historians etc., and those skills might only be able to be taught in person like other professions.

    But if we focus on the intrinsic value of the study, it’s not hard to see why people who want to know about, say history or philosophy, might choose to eschew a humanities degree for a professional degree whilst self teaching. It’s an imperfect substitute, but far far far cheaper in terms of money and especially time.

  12. Moz says:

    Extending Richard’s point a little, we may see traditional soft sciences become more elitist – a few high quality schools rather than every university trying to maintain a broad range of humanities courses using the tiny number of staff they can afford or justify. That’s not necessarily bad, just different. Personally, I think the shift from a BMrs to a BA(misc) is one of tone rather than content, and I’m not convinced that it’s an improvement. I’d rather seem fewer, higher standard sociual science and humanities courses.
    When I was at uni around 1990 the debate about whether engineering students should be required to do an arts paper in their intermediate year was quite vigorous. The counterpoint that we were already fighting to keep the existing course load in the face to strong pressure to reduce it, so taking out two maths papers for one humanities paper was not going to go down well with anyone. Over the 7 years I was there engineering went from about 35 contact hours a week to 30.
    Despite that I did arts papers throughout my degrees, because I was interested in them (and when i asked the HOD was thrilled, with the caveat that if he thought I was trying to choose the easy option he’d refuse).

  13. Mango says:

    Law now seems to be the generalist degree of choice, particularly how that a graduate program is required to practice. I suspect that the Humanities, along with Social Science, Economics and Climate Science, has simply not adequately promoted its benefits. (If someone publicly said what a general practitioner should do in relation to a medical condiction, or if someone tried to tell an engineer or architect was to do in relation to a structural problem, they would be dismissed. Yet, anyone can spout off about how the Government should have addressed the GFC, or should be addressing climate change, and they are unchallenged.)
    When I left school, I was not permitted to study journalism part-time and I wanted to work. I enrolled in an Arts degree because I didn’t know what else to do. I majored in Politics and Theology, because I found them kind of interesting and the subjects fit best with my work schedule! As a bonus, and my Uni had a formidable Politics faculty.
    But I prize my Arts degree because it taught me how to think critically; to research; to argue. It challenged my assumptions and it broadened my knowledge. It refined my writing (though probably not to the extent a journalism degree might have). And it ignited my interest in government, politics, history, and philosophy.
    Now that I work in Government, I am slightly appalled at the lack of knowledge of so many in the executive who are ill-informed about our constitution, system of government, policy making process, and key historical events. This is where I feel my Arts degree has paid off, and I think would have paid off for others.
    That said, I have had a lot of family pressure about my choice of study; my siblings studied vocational degrees (educaiton, allied medicine, applied science and information technology) and the attitude of so many is that one studies for a qualification to pursue a particular career. That said, there has not been as much consternation since I have gone on to study higher degrees (in Social Sciences).
    But in answer to your questions:
    1. It’s feasible – but students these days, by and large, need to see a direct application for what they study. I would love to somehow educate the public to my perspective, that education in itself is valuable – for game shows and trivia nights, if nothing else! ;)
    2. In smaller univeristies, my advice would be to specialise. It’s not possible to be a History department that has expertise in every area of history. Make yourself the Australian university hub of Chinese history or Renaissance history or whatever. Get yourself some speaking gigs on radio.
    3. I’m not sure about ‘Foundation Studies’, but I think there would be value in having a mandatory PROGRAM, but with ELECTIVE SUBJECTS. At least then, there is some choice in the requirement and it can be used to pursue interests (and hopefully, the interest will bloom into a passion).
    On a side note, and related to one of the posts above about the disincentives for University teachers to fail students – I too have felt this pressure when I worked as a tutor. Unfortunately I see the results of this in some of the graduates I have worked with.

  14. Richard Green says:

    Mango – I’m inclined to think that the variety of professions that law graduates end up in may have less to do with the versatility of the degree and more to do with a large number of intelligent people who went into a law degree because it was the thing to do with a strong academic record in high school – and then realised how catastrophically horrible a law career is, and put the intelligence that garnered the strong academic record to use elsewhere.

  15. Mango says:

    Good point Richard – that hadn’t occurred to me!
    But having studied a little bit of law (Grad.Dip. level), I can also see how handy a law degree is – it includes philosophy, critical reasoning, research, analysis, critique, politics, governance, policy, and one’s writing is sharpened. And it gets a bit more kudos than with an Arts degree. ;)

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  17. John D says:

    I am an engineering outsider looking in but I would suggest that, in this day and age, that to be “educated” requires a range of educational experiences in science and technology as well as humanities and language. Personally, I would have preferred general education to have continued for the first two years of university instead of having specialized in science/engineering from the start of year one. The idea that humanities should be imposed on the technology plebs while humanities students are kept in a state of technological ignorance seems a bit arrogant and quaint.
    What really counts in the outside world is a graduates ability to learn and analyze new ideas and information, solve a whole range of new problems as well as communicate and deal with people. What we need for a changing world are these generalized skills combined with short courses at the end of university to provide the specific knowledge required for specific jobs. The sklls learned from trying to put arts students in their place was probably more important fro my career than boring old engineering.

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