Are the humanities in crisis? In Australia, the sector is thriving

Forget the doom and gloom about the humanities: employment and research in the sector continues to rise. Smithsonian American Art/Flickr

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb delivered a speech to the National Press Club last month, launching his office’s latest report with the core message that science matters, that it is important to Australia’s present and future, that it needs to be funded.

The report – The Importance of Advanced Physical and Mathematical Sciences to the Australian Economy – makes a case for the importance of science and maths on the basis of the sector’s contribution to the GDP.

In the weeks since that speech, Chubb’s assessment of the sector has received tremendous news coverage.

But in October 2014, Ian Chubb addressed the National Press Club with another purpose: to launch the Mapping the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia report. It received a mention in the The Australian’s Higher Education supplement by Julie Hare, and was referred to in an article about university writing programs on The Conversation.

And … that’s about it.

Professor Graeme Turner, co-author of the report with Kylie Brass of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, said when he launched the report that:

typically, some would say almost pathologically, the HASS (humanities and social sciences) sector tends to feel it does not get the attention and support it deserves.

The different response to the two reports underscores the veracity of that concern.

Humanities in crisis?

Mapping the Humanities appeared in an environment of perceived negativity about the place of the humanities in higher education globally.

Paul Benneworth dates the notion of a crisis in the humanities to 1964 and the publication of a collection of essays bearing that title, edited by JH Plumb (Cambridge historian and friend of CP Snow), whose concept of the “two cultures” of arts and sciences has played out across campuses globally.

There is nothing new about this alarmist view of the decline of the humanities – but it is probably true that the cry is particularly loud at the moment.

Alex Preston’s recent Observer article on the topic reported on the high-profile battles between Marina Warner and the University of Essex playing out in the London Review of Books.

Perhaps inconveniently for a global media project intent on portraying the humanities as a sector in crisis, the Australian report shows that the humanities, arts and social sciences are “currently in good health”.

It demonstrates the extent to which teaching and research in these disciplinary areas are rich and vibrant, and that good work continues to happen across the sector.

What do we know?

The Mapping the Humanities report is expansive. It covers education, research and workforce data in the relevant disciplinary areas – areas largely identified by Field of Education and Field of Research codes, which makes it a bit tricky to identify specific areas of teaching or research.

The authors find that for teaching:

[t]here has been substantial growth in disciplines ranging from traditional humanities … to the more contemporary formations in the social sciences, to new interdisciplinary programmes which span the humanities and social sciences.

The disciplines contribute significantly to the skill development of the Australian workforce.

Similarly, there are many success stories in humanities and social sciences research in Australia. The sector:

received 16% of the nation’s research income, contributed 44% of the total number of Units of Evaluation in the 2012 ERA research assessment exercise, and produced 34% of the research outputs in the university sector.

Cause for concern

The report also highlights areas that need redress. Staff-student ratios are higher in arts and social sciences than in technical disciplines.

Regional universities suffer from declining enrolments in humanities disciplines, and this may be connected to the decline in ARC research funding accessed by regionally based researchers (only 4% of ARC funding for arts and social sciences was won by regional universities).

The academic workforce data reveals the extent of casual appointments as a means of reducing costs in arts and social sciences, highlighting a very real danger to the next generation of humanities academics.

In the United States, arguments are made about the decline of the humanities on the basis of a long tradition of liberal arts majors and general education requirements across disciplines.

In the UK, extensive funding cuts in higher education, driven by an austerity agenda and a rise in mad managerialism and a wonk impact agenda, have created distrust and despondency about the future of humanities and creative arts in the university sector.

But the humanities are not in crisis in Australia. Turner and Brass’s report shows the sheer size and diversity of the sector and highlight the importance of strategic investment in the humanities. Turner makes the point that:

As Professor Chubb has argued in relation to STEM, Australia is not big enough to just let the market do the job; we need to make strategic decisions and to plan what we can and should do as a nation.

Embedded in all this good news is a reminder that for success to be maintained, strategic funding and support is essential. The report makes a case to government and, importantly, to university management, for continued funding and support.

Despite rising staff-student ratios, reduced investment, and pressure on offerings, the humanities are resilient and successful – but they can’t be expected to remain that way without a more strategic plan for their support.

Without better planning, these success stories are in danger; the level of performance and achievement that the report details is simply not going to be sustainable.

By providing nuance and fine grain detail to our understanding of the humanities sector in Australia, the report is a celebration of the diversity of activity in the disciplines under that banner, and a map for developing that strategic plan to support to Humanities to continue to produce the highest quality research and teaching.

The humanities are not in crisis in Australia – and perhaps not anywhere. The next phase of research from the Australian Academy of the Humanities and its partners will add more narrative body to the statistical evidence that underpins this fact and draw out some of the stories that show this fact to be unreservedly true.