12 Oct 2018

Universities face a crisis of the humanities

10:02 am on 12 October 2018

In an era of fake news and partisanship, society needs critical thinkers more than ever. So why are students increasingly turning away from the humanities? Kate Newton reports.

You can tell when it's nearly exam time at the University of Otago, because the weather is suddenly perfect. After a winter spent huddled into down jackets, scarves and hats, watching their breath hang in the air inside clammy flats, the students unfurl themselves onto concrete porches and daisy-dotted lawns to thaw the deep-seated chill in their bones. The campus, barren and twiggy a week earlier, becomes lush with blossom.

Two particularly large flowering cherry trees govern a manicured section of lawn outside the university's gothic clocktower building. Visible from the council chamber on the first floor, they were just beginning to put forth tiny green leaves when the university senate met on 26 September and decided to axe Otago's art history programme from 2020.

There wasn't much of a programme left to cut. Through a process of attrition, the department had been whittled down, since 2014, to 19 full-time students, three undergraduate papers and a single full-time lecturer.

Protesters at Otago University rally against staff cuts proposed for the arts departments.

University of Otago students and staff protest against cuts to the Division of Humanities in 2016 Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Drastic though it was, the death of art history at the University of Otago was merely the latest in a series of staffing and programme cuts in arts and humanities faculties at universities around New Zealand. Otago cut 16 jobs from its humanities division in 2016, the University of Waikato cut 17 humanities and social sciences teaching roles in 2017, and AUT announced in August this year it planned to cut up to 40 full-time positions from its Society and Culture faculty. The University of Auckland will cut five staff from its School of Language, Linguistics and Culture and ignored furious protests earlier this year when it decided to close three specialist arts libraries.

The universities blame a declining interest in the humanities - the branches of study dealing with how people process and document the human experience - and a corresponding fall in student numbers. The trend is not isolated to New Zealand: US magazine The Atlantic recently concluded that, after decades of premature predictions, maybe this time a crisis in the humanities could be for real.

Certainly in New Zealand, the largest, long-established humanities subjects have suffered steep falls in student numbers. At undergraduate level, literature students fell by a quarter over the past decade. Foreign language departments lost 30 percent of their students. History student numbers declined by 16 percent, and art history and religious studies numbers nearly halved. The patterns are similar at postgraduate levels. All up, those five subjects alone lost nearly 4000 bachelor and postgraduate students between 2008 and 2017.

Data source: educationcounts.govt.nz

Data source: educationcounts.govt.nz Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Humanities and the wider 'Society and Culture' category they fall under in Education Ministry statistics still make up a quarter of all university enrolments. But as well as sharp drops in certain subjects, the humanities' overall share of students is also slowly but steadily declining.

Across 25 BA majors that RNZ classified as unambiguously part of the humanities, the number of degree and post-graduate level students actually rose during the global financial crisis, mirroring university enrolment patterns in other countries. From 2010, however, the numbers began to drop away again. There were 1000 fewer humanities students enrolled in 2017 than in 2008, despite an increase of almost 40,000 students across all degrees and subjects.

Data source: educationcounts.govt.nz

Data source: educationcounts.govt.nz Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

On the sill of Sean Sturm's University of Auckland office is a tome about T. S. Eliot that looks heavy enough to kill someone if it tumbled out the window. An English literature PhD graduate, he still occasionally teaches in the department, but most of his time these days is given over to his role as director of the University of Auckland's Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education.

A small part of the drop in humanities students numbers is down to increasing numbers of minorities and women taking traditionally white, male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, he says. "The work I've done on graduate attributes … particularly with Māori and Pasifika students, would suggest that their parents are encouraging them to go into fields that are both traditionally better-earning and of higher status, and of greater value to those communities - law and medicine and so on."

Sean Sturm, director of University of Auckland Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education

Sean Sturm says the rhetoric that trickled down from the government steered students away from humanities subjects Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

But the bigger decline in humanities students has been inevitable as higher education has become less about the pursuit of knowledge and more "instrumentalised", he says. "It's a means to an end, to get yourself a job." An undergraduate degree costs $15,000 to $20,000 in fees alone. That has prompted people to think of it as a private rather than public good, Sturm says.

That's a mindset the previous government was very happy to foster. A report released in 2013 compared graduate earnings over time, relative to national median salaries. Earnings were highest among science, technology, engineering, and health graduates - something emphasised by tertiary education, skills and employment minister Steven Joyce in the press release sent out with the report. Three years later, when the data was updated, Joyce said: "The release of this information will help students and their families to make smart decisions about what to study, which will set them up for a prosperous future."

"The National government's rhetoric was, you stand to gain a lot from this education, so see it as an investment," Sturm says. What the earnings data also shows, though, is that having any bachelor's degree at all gives holders a significant pay bump. For graduates classified under humanities fields, the premium was lower than average, but still between 24 and 39 percent higher than the national median salary five years after graduation.

Massey University English lecturer Hannah August began analysing the language the government and universities used in reports, marketing material and other documents after humanities and arts faculties around the country began cutting staff in 2016. "What there seemed to be … was this incredibly strong emphasis on university as training for work; the point of university being to go and upskill yourself such that you would earn more than you would had you not gone to university."

Hannah August

Hannah August Photo: Jenna Todd

The current Tertiary Education Strategy, released in 2014, states this in bald terms: "This strategy focuses in particular on the economic benefits that result from tertiary education, and therefore on employment, higher incomes and better access to skilled employees for business as critical outcomes of tertiary education."

When university is presented as a direct pathway to employment, the humanities automatically get left behind, August says. "Not because they don't get you jobs - because they do … but because it's not so self-evident what those jobs are."

She doesn't blame students. "There's a whole lot of anxiety circulating for young people today about their financial future... But I think a humanities education offers you something else, and the value of that 'something else' can be just as great, if not greater, than the price tag that's going to be attached to your degree in terms of your earnings afterwards."


"Something else" is also the phrase that final-year psychology student Candice uses to describe what her Bachelor of Arts has given her. She doesn't regret her choice of degree: "As long as I can afford to pay my rent and eat, that's enough." She's sharing a picnic table with friends in the University of Auckland's quad: Maddy takes literature, Alex is studying film studies and communications, Isaac's an economics and accounting major. It's Sean, who studies physics and once wanted to be an astronaut, who blurts out the most impassioned, albeit brief, defence of an arts degree: "The humanities - I mean, it's the study of humanity."

It's that human focus that the workforce and society stands to lose if the number of humanities graduates continues to dwindle, Sean Sturm says. "[Humanities looks] at why people think, believe, do things … That still remains its real distinguishing feature; it's the fact that it's concerned with 'why' questions, not so much 'how' and 'what' questions. And that's it's real strength."

Hannah August says society needs people asking "why" more than ever right now. "We are in the era of fake news … That's why it's absolutely crucial to be giving people those educations that enable them to perform that type of critical thinking that involves not taking something at face value - so thinking about what the motivations for presenting it in a particular way are, thinking about what the things that aren't being said might be - and that's the bread and butter of humanities education at university level."

It's that kind of thinking recruiters still look for, Sturm says. "The arts is ahead of the game on that, but it's not necessarily connecting with students. Students aren't realising that if they did a degree that had humanities components, they would equip themselves better to go into whatever their profession was."

Undergraduate students at the University of Auckland: Isaac (left), Candice, Sean, Alex and Maddy.

Undergraduate students at the University of Auckland: Isaac (left), Candice, Sean, Alex and Maddy. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

In other words, humanities has been doing a terrible PR job. Sturm's colleague Jennifer Lees-Marshment has spent her career studying and teaching political marketing - and now she's campaigning on behalf of the arts, as one of two employability advocates in the University of Auckland arts faculty.

It's no use batting away questions of employability and earning potential, she says. "We need to worry about the practical value of a degree for two reasons. One, the cost of doing a degree has gone up for students ... so they're coming out university with a lot of debt, for a start. Second, the easy, superficial, paper value of a degree has gone down, because more people get degrees."

That doesn't mean the death of the humanities, if the discipline can get over its squeamishness about selling itself. "Vocation isn't just a job," Lees-Marshment says. "Vocation is about wanting to make a difference in the world." For her, that's what an arts degree is all about. "It's about enacting positive social change. That's a very practical but heartfelt value from the BA degree, but it's something we haven't articulated enough in the past."

In an effort to boost enrolments and help current students, Lees-Marshment and another colleague have begun running employability courses and workshops for arts students. "What we discuss … is the range of jobs that relate to arts that will enable students to do that [make a difference]. We need to bring employability to the front of the agenda ... so that students see those options."

August says Massey University recently introduced a compulsory core of five papers for all its arts students, three of them focused on ideas of citizenship. "They get corralled around these themes that allows students to go and say to employers afterwards, this is the type of person I am, this is the type of person I've been trained to be, I've got this cultural awareness, I've got this empathy."


There's one strange outlier in the humanities data. Since 2008, the number of students taking sociology as their predominant course of study has increased by 58 percent - an increase so large that the subject now has more enrolments than any other major.

When Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott joined the University of Otago's sociology department in 2008, she became its third staff member. Now, there are 10 academic staff - though some also teach in other areas.

She wonders whether it's because the subject includes practical elements, particularly on-the-ground research, as well as providing a path to professional social work programmes, where student numbers have also increased. "Sociology has avoided being pigeonholed as a humanities discipline in that sense, maybe because we're a social science, maybe because students see us as more of those direct skills."

It retains those core humanities values, though, she says. "It gives you those practical skills but it also allows you to understand your own life and other people better." She's happy for the extra numbers, but she too believes the humanities in general have been undersold. "I don't think there's anything wrong with a practical education, but part of it is missing the forest for the trees - saying, oh, with an English major you're going to learn English. Well, no. You're going to learn heaps more."

Data source: educationcounts.govt.nz

Data source: educationcounts.govt.nz Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton


The focus on technology and science alone misses something else crucial, Hohmann-Marriott says. "The things we do best are the things computers can't do - so I think there's a hugely important role for, particularly, humanities education to play as the nature of employment, and what those jobs entail, changes with technology."

Hannah August says there's optimism to be found in the new government's fees-free policy, even though it's not had much effect so far on university student numbers. "Saying we're going to enable people have a tertiary education that they don't pay for implies, to me, that it's worth having that education whatever discipline it's in - so on the face of it that seems really encouraging."

But universities need to back the humanities even as there's ebb and flow from different subjects. There were options for Otago's art history programme, she says. "You continue it as a minor, which was one of the propositions put forward, and then you allow it to grow." That programme is unlikely to return quickly even if students express interest in future. "You get rid of all the expertise and infrastructure … and it's extremely hard to retrofit it all back on again."

You can view the full data analysis used in this story here.

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