Caution at reversal of humanities decline

February 10, 1995

For the first time in more than eight years, the proportion of Australian students taking arts degrees has stopped falling.

Latest statistics from the federal education department show that the arts could be regaining some popularity among young Australians. Last year, 22.7 per cent of the total cohort enrolled in arts, humanities and social sciences - a slight increase from 22.2 per cent in 1993.

But even though the steady decline has been arrested, the figure is still well down on what it was in the early 1980s when more than one in every four of Australia's university students were studying for an arts degree.

Had the arts faculties retained the proportion of students present in 1986, they would today have been able to count on an extra 13,000 enrolments. The additional bodies would also have meant an extra 1,000 or so lecturing posts - and perhaps have prevented the wholesale closure of many small departments.

The glee in arts common rooms at the reversal of the decline could be short-lived, according to a report by the Australian Council for Educational Research. The report records a decline of nearly seven percentage points in the participation in humanities and social science courses among senior secondary students between 1990 and 1993.

In a survey of 20,000 students in years 11 and 12, the council survey found that markedly fewer students were undertaking arts-type courses at school. And that, presumably, means fewer can be expected to enrol in the same fields at university.

The arts seem to have been a victim of the Australian share market crash in 1987 and the onset of the recession. Faced with increasingly uncertain employment prospects, thousands of young Australians turned to courses that would give them qualifications they hoped would help in finding a job.

As a result, enrolment increases in the arts lagged well behind the overall growth in student numbers. Between 1986 and 1994, higher education enrolments jumped by more than 50 per cent. In contrast, the arts, humanities and social sciences increased their enrolments by less than 36 per cent.

Instead, faculties of business, science and health have been expanding at the expense of the arts. Over the last eight years, half the growth in enrolments has been concentrated in these areas.

A decade ago, the arts enrolled nearly half as many students again as were taking business-related degree courses. By the early 1990s, business faculties were fast catching up and could count on almost as many students enrolling as were doing arts.

Apart from health, business faculties appear to have benefited most from the changing preferences of students. According to the DEET figures, enrolments in these fields have leapt by 67 per cent since 1986.

Of the ten major fields of study, education has suffered most. After state governments began slashing teacher numbers, education faculties across the nation were forced to cut their intakes and enrolments in education last year were actually lower than they were in 1983.

Since then, the proportion of students taking degrees or diplomas in education has dropped from 21 per cent of total enrolments to 12 per cent last year - a decline of 43 percentage points. Now education deans are warning that the cuts have gone too far and Australia will soon be facing a severe shortage of teachers.

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