With the rapid growth of scientific research in China, an employability agenda in parts of Europe and America that emphasises a technological education and a global research ecosystem that seems to favour pure science, it sometimes feels as if the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) must be declining activities in higher education.
However, it can be difficult to find the evidence to support these anecdotal concerns. Databases that index published research have well-known limitations on arts and humanities coverage, and it is sometimes hard to compare research income between countries with very different approaches to funding.
But one possible way to take the temperature of the global health of AHSS research capacity might be to look at researcher numbers across different nations.
Staff data collected for Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings by subject give us a potentially useful snapshot of how academics are split between fields among the globe’s leading research-intensive institutions.
They show that, on average, ranked universities in Asia tend to have a much higher proportion of academics working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
For instance, for 38 Indian institutions that provided relevant full-time equivalent staff data to THE, on average about half of all academics were working in engineering and technology subject areas. For China, this average share was about a third, and for Japan it was 29 per cent.
This contrasts with average shares close to 10 per cent for Anglo-American university systems such as the US, the UK, Australia and Canada, although the major continental European nations of Germany and France had average shares for engineering and technology of at least a quarter.
Clinical subjects do not show such a wide gulf with Asia, but the data on arts, humanities and social science subjects suggest that universities in the US and the UK tend to have much higher shares of academics working in such fields.
On average, almost one-third of staff in 127 ranked US institutions that provided data were working in AHSS, while for the UK the average was 30 per cent.
By and large, for Asian countries the share of academics working in these fields was smaller – it was 19 per cent in Japan and 26 per cent in China – although it should be stressed that far fewer universities provided staff data for such disciplines.
However, one developed higher education system where the proportion was surprisingly small was Australia, where data from 22 ranked institutions pointed to an average of 24 per cent working in AHSS areas, several percentage points behind the US, the UK and Canada (30 per cent).
A deeper look at THE data on just the arts and humanities area going back to the 2016 rankings suggests that Australia has consistently trailed these nations, as well as European countries, on capacity in these subjects. On average, about 13 per cent of staff were working in the arts and humanities (which in THE’s rankings includes subjects such as art and design, languages, philosophy, history and architecture) compared with about 20 per cent in the UK, the US and Germany.
Data from other sources also seem to suggest that the academic workforce in some AHSS areas has failed to keep pace with other subjects in Australia. Figures for research staff numbers published as part of the 2015 and 2018 Excellence in Research Australia evaluations suggest that the share of academic staff in arts and humanities areas shrank over the period.
A report published in 2014 by the Australian Academy of the Humanities warned that although AHSS staff numbers were rising, the overall growth rate was lower than for the whole system, and especially in areas such as society and culture. “In all cases [staff numbers] have clearly failed to keep pace with the increase in student numbers,” it added.
Graeme Turner, emeritus professor in the University of Queensland’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and a co-author of that study, said the THE figures were “not surprising” given the “significant disinvestment in AHSS within our universities in recent years”.
Among the reasons for this were a lack of spending on research infrastructure, a skewing of funding programmes towards STEM subjects and declining success for AHSS in “big-ticket research fellowship” schemes, he said.
“I don’t think that much of this is particularly due to malign intent, or the deliberate vandalisation of the AHSS fields; rather, it probably reflects a combination of ignorance, budgetary pragmatism and benign neglect,” Professor Turner added.
He also said that the blame did not necessarily lie with the government.
“The current situation could still be a lot better than it is if it was not for the choices being made by the universities themselves. Research performance drives the big dollars in our system, and it is not surprising that universities have all chosen to follow the money – but it doesn’t lead to the humanities and social sciences,” Professor Turner said.
The THE data suggest that there might be a way to go before Australia is on a par with some nations in Asia in terms of a heavier leaning towards STEM in its ranked universities.
However, this apparent concentration on pure science subjects in countries such as China and India might actually be masking a growth in humanities education that is not being picked up.
Lili Yang, a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Global Higher Education and the University of Oxford, said there was an “evident tendency” in China for elite universities to focus on STEM areas, something that was “largely driven by the national strategy” of the Chinese government.
However, a recent analysis she conducted with academics from Tsinghua University on the strategic plans of some Chinese institutions revealed that a number were concentrating on non-STEM areas.
And although new colleges focused entirely on the humanities and social sciences might be rare in China, many universities were launching liberal arts programmes for students.
“While [Chinese universities] are skewing towards STEM, there is probably an increasing number of liberal arts and mathematics education programmes, which [might not] be reflected by the number of recruited staff in different disciplines,” Ms Yang said.
In India, too, the data on ranked institutions – which are dominated by the Indian Institutes of Technology – might be masking the true subject mix in the wider system.
“The dominant narrative about Asian higher education, at least the Indian component, is that of professional education, especially in engineering and medicine, with engineering occupying the most significant share. However, if you actually consider the statistics, this turns out to be more of a perception than reality,” said Saikat Majumdar, professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University.
He said the “fascination with engineering is indeed beginning to drop somewhat, as graduates of third- and fourth-rate engineering colleges have proved unemployable. Many of the new mushrooming engineering colleges have empty seats, and many have started to close down.”
Meanwhile, recent years have seen growth in the establishment of liberal arts colleges, which although currently a “very niche phenomenon” was “of high significance as it has created a very elite and powerful niche”.
He said some of the “entrepreneurial energy” behind these new institutions was coming from those who had professional training “but now feel the necessity to create a pool of talented liberal arts graduates who, they feel, will make better employees than a mediocre engineer. I think this new wave of liberal arts education is sweeping all over Asia.”
With these trends in mind – and the picture in countries such as Australia – could it come to pass that the supposed dominance of Western universities in AHSS subjects is also eroded in the same way as it has been in STEM?
Print headline: Liberal arts play bit part Down Under