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The slow decline of Australian humanities

Examining the changing terrain of humanities funding.

The Temple of Zeus, Aizanoi, Turkey. Photo courtesy of AD Plancherel via Flickr.

The idea that the humanities suffer from a crisis mentality is not new. Indeed, the phrase ‘crisis in the humanities’ was coined in 1964 by J.H.Plumb, a British historian. Whether the humanities in Australia falls into this description is a contentious topic as its healthy appetite amongst Australian undergraduates and precarious workforce collides in reality. 

Figures from the most recent Australian Academy of Social Sciences report, compiled in 2014 and publicly released in 2017, suggests that Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) departments remain central to the higher education sector, commanding a clear majority (65%) of all students enrolled in Australian universities. A similar proportion applies for university graduates aged between 20 and 69. It is heartening to see that humanities continue to enjoy healthy demand from prospective students. Some of the best performing disciplines include philosophy and modern languages.

But the report is also frank about risks underlying the sector’s higher student-to-staff ratio, ageing teaching demographics, and a workforce highly dependent on casual staff: comprising 27% of all academics as of 2012, yet delivering up to 60% of the undergraduate teaching load. The report also notes that regional HASS departments are particularly vulnerable, especially in fields such as languages or Indigenous culture. Australian Research Council (ARC) grants are skewed towards metropolitan universities: as of 2015, only 4% of HASS research grants were awarded to regional universities. As such, these structural issues should leave all universities — but especially regional ones — vulnerable in the post-COVID-19 recovery period.

Federal and state initiatives in the past five years suggest an increasing disregard from politicians on the economic and political value of the humanities. One area where this rhetoric is borne out lies in research funding. Despite the large teaching and research load that HASS takes on, research income has fallen from 16% in 2014 to 13% by 2018. A University of Sydney spokesperson confirmed to Honi that: “Our [HASS] disciplines have experienced a significant decline in funding over the past five years.” This is in part due to an emerging division between STEM and HASS within both the ARC and federal research agenda. ““New government research funding is focussed on STEM areas – for example through the Medical Research Future Fund and Defence Innovation Fund.” 

This is in part due to ideological opposition to HASS grants. In 2018, former Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham introduced a “national interest test” to measure ARC projects in proportion to their value to the public interest. He invoked this test to veto 11 ARC grants – all within humanities disciplines. Responding to queries from his Labor counterpart over the controversial move, Birmingham defended his decision on Twitter by deriding one of the vetoed projects, titled “Double Crossings: Post-Orientalist Arts at the Straits of Gibraltar”, as essentially of no interest to the Australian public.

The veto drew swift condemnation not only from USyd’s Roger Benjamin (the leading investigator of the derided project), but from across the tertiary sector. Critics argued that the Minister’s move impeded on academic autonomy enjoyed by the ARC, politicising a decision that should have been made on merit. Although Birmingham’s move was partially reversed in the re-approval of four of these projects by successor Dan Tehan, Birmingham’s vetoes are indicative of the lower regard that some politicians hold of the humanities. In this instance, projects delving into topics ranging from men’s dress, legal secularism and riots were perceived to be frivolous and of little or no benefit to the public.

Thus, there should be no room for complacency. As COVID-19 progresses, market forces will impact heavily on the research and teaching capacities of Australian universities, within both  STEM and the humanities. Already, the precarious casual workforce underpinning over half of our universities’ teaching capacity are facing immense job pressure. Only several days ago, universities, including USyd, were forced to alert staff at short notice of their eligibility to apply for JobKeeper subsidies. If left unnoticed, it is likely that the brunt of impending cuts and falling international student enrolments will be shouldered disproportionately by humanities departments.That is not to deny that the sciences will avoid the same fate. However, regional universities, without urban universities’ significant endowment nor comparable economy of scale, will likely implement contentious decisions in the months to come in order to sustain their finances. The University of Tasmania has already reduced their degree offerings from 514 to 120 citing COVID-19. Whether Australian humanities faculties can remain resilient will depend on whether university boards and the Federal Government’s commitment to the humanities survive difficult underlying arithmetics and resistance to attempts to divide the houses of STEM and the humanities.

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