Enrolments in the humanities are dropping, with university leaders worried important subjects will be lost because students are preferring to study courses that have a clear job at the end.
Ministry of Education figures show 146,535 people were enrolled in bachelor's degrees last year, about 14,000 more than in 2003.
Most of the growth in that period was in subjects including science, commerce, and health and engineering.
But the humanities missed out. Their enrolments grew until 2010, but then fell away. By last year, there were 52,265 bachelor's degree students in subjects classified as "society and culture", 3595 fewer than in 2003.
Society and culture enrolments provided 36 percent of bachelor of arts (BA) enrolments last year, down from 42 percent in 2003.
Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan said more students were opting for courses with an obvious job at the end, and that posed a problem for the humanities.
"Arts always has a problem in that it's not clear immediately who the employer is, even though arts graduates have exactly the same employment outcomes as engineers or doctors with about 98 percent employment rates.
"What's not clear though is exactly which employers they're going to."
Mr Whelan said the decline had not been evenly distributed across the various humanities divisions.
"For example, the proportion of students that are doing things like social work has actually gone up by 48 percent since 2008, where students studying subjects like language and literature or philosophy and religious studies, they've dropped by about 10 or 15 percent."
Job cuts considered as enrolments drop
Otago University recently proposed cutting the equivalent of about 16 full-time staff from five of its 16 humanities units.
It's pro-vice-chancellor Humanities, Tony Ballantyne, said the department had suffered a marked drop in enrolments over the past five years.
"Basically what we're responding to is a sustained and marked drop in humanities enrolments at Otago," he said.
"Our enrolments have dropped from close to 6000 equivalent full-time students in 2010 to about 4850 equivalent full-time students now, so that's about a 20 percent drop."
Professor Ballantyne said some departments had lost nearly half their students.
He said the humanities provided great skills for work and life, but it was clear from talking to students that they wanted more certainty that their qualification would lead to a job.
"One thing that we've had a strong sense of, talking to our students, is that there are growing concerns around levels of student indebtedness, there are concerns about the future of work and employment outcomes," he said.
"So one thing that seems to be going on is there is a kind of a structural shift in the understanding of the role of education to perhaps something that's a little bit more vocational, a little bit more professionally focused."
Professor Ballantyne said music, languages, English and linguistics, anthropology and archaeology were among the worst affected at Otago, while other departments had noticed little change.
He said Otago was not alone and other universities also had falling humanities enrolments, not just in New Zealand but also in countries like the United States, where state universities and Ivy League institutions were affected.
"Yale, for a long time English and history were always the most popular majors, now that's maths and economics.
"History enrolments in the United States between 2012 ... and 2014 declined by eight percent on average, and three-quarters of American history departments have had declining enrolments in the past two years. So these shifts are global."
Victoria University was also making changes, with a proposal to cut four full-time academic staff and two part-time senior tutor roles, and create three full-time and one part-time academic staff positions in the languages department.
The university's pro vice-chancellor and dean of humanities and social sciences, Jennifer Windsor, said enrolments had been falling in European languages in particular.
Professor Windsor said across the humanities as a whole, enrolments had dropped six or seven percent since a peak in 2011, but this year they had increased thanks to enrolments by school-leavers.
She said this year's increase was likely to be due to a number of factors including a greater understanding that the humanities provided valuable skills.
"People are realising that in the move to think about scientific, technical and professional fields, that you need a really good generalist strong broad base of education. That you really do need those analytical, critical thinking skills," she said.
Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey said universities were good at cross-subsidising courses so important subjects were not abandoned, even if they had few enrolments.
But she worried that universities and the government were not keeping an eye on the long-term and national effects of ongoing cuts to the humanities.
"That would be my concern for humanities - that we do cuts just by numbers, just by financial viability and we don't go 'New Zealand still needs some universities teaching the classics, New Zealand still needs some universities teaching political science, some universities teaching languages."
Dr Grey said if that did not happen and entire disciplines were lost, New Zealand society would be the poorer for it.