Is STEM growth really stunting the humanities?


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One of the most commonly voiced reflections regarding the pandemic’s impact on higher education is that it has underlined the value of interdisciplinarity.

While science is responsible for developing vaccines and treatments, the phenomena of vaccine and lockdown scepticism have made clear that medicine does not operate in a vacuum and that the study of human motivation and behaviour is another crucial element of successful public health interventions. And while the social sciences are the disciplines that are most frequently pointed to in this regard, the humanities are often mentioned in the same breath.

Yet humanities scholars themselves may be less convinced that such statements will halt their disciplines’ perceived decline. After all, interdisciplinarity is not a new concept, but its rise over the past decade has not prevented a sense that it is only science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects that are seen by politicians, funders and parents as the key to employability and economic progress.

That anxiety has only been heightened recently by a sense that the pandemic has accelerated the closure of some humanities programmes. But are these concerns really warranted? Is there hard evidence that STEM is taking over higher education and leaving other subjects short of students and funding? The data offer some corroboration, but you have to look quite hard for it.

Painting of woman reading

Looking at the international long-term data on higher education study by field, it is difficult to immediately discern a global stampede to STEM degrees over the past 20 years.

One dataset produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), for instance, indicates that, as a proportion of all degrees, STEM subjects dipped between 2004 and 2012 in the UK and Sweden, but have been rising since. It also indicates that STEM degrees in the US are broadly stable and have risen significantly in Germany between 2002 and 2014 (although the data are missing for the interim years). South Korea is one of the only examples of a clear trend away from STEM.

Graph showing percentage of tertiary education graduates from STEM fields

However, the dataset is far from complete, containing some missing years and countries. Moreover, it is unclear whether each country categorises fields in the same way. Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) give a cleaner picture of the current split among fields, and what is noticeable is that some countries have a particularly heavy leaning towards fields such as engineering (Germany, South Korea) or maths and natural science (the UK).

Graph showing distribution of tertiary graduates by subject 2018

For a more historical perspective, national-level data are more useful. A good place to start is the US, where the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) has a project dedicated to tracking the state of the humanities. Its data show a clear trend away from bachelor’s degree students majoring in the humanities over the past decade, after a long period of relative stability. In 2009, humanities completions accounted for 14.6 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees, but that had fallen to 10.2 per cent by 2018. In contrast, engineering grew from 6.6 per cent in 2009 to 10.3 per cent over the same period, and health and medical sciences expanded from 7.5 per cent to 12.4 per cent. If STEM is categorised as these fields plus natural sciences, then, as a whole, its share of completions rose from 22.7 per cent to 33.4 per cent.

Graph showing US distribution of bachelor’s degree completions by subject 1987-2018

For Robert Townsend, who oversees the AAAS Humanities Indicators in his role as programme director for humanities, arts and culture, the reason for the shift is likely to be the economy and the perception that STEM leads to better employment prospects.

“It’s almost as if someone rang a bell with the Great Recession [of 2008-09] and there was a sharp cultural shift in people’s attitudes,” he says, adding that similar correlations can be seen in previous data on humanities majors and economic crises, such as that of the 1970s.

This hunch, he adds, is supported by the rise in the popularity of communication degrees, which come under the humanities banner in the data but have trended up in the past decade, probably on account of their having “more of an employment prospect than an English or a history degree”.

The massive growth in health and medical sciences is also potentially linked to the economy, Townsend says, because they “hit that sweet spot for somebody who wants to serve society and humanity but also to have a high level of confidence that they’re going to get a job”. All that said, he does not think the humanities’ decline in popularity is entirely down to the economy. A social move away from reading could also be part of the explanation, he thinks.

“The disciplines that are dropping are the most book-focused, and…the amount of time spent reading has been going down for a considerable amount of time,” he points out.

The employability narrative also seems to be applicable outside the US. Ulrich Müller, head of policy studies at Germany’s Centre for Higher Education, says that although the number of new starters on humanities courses has been “relatively stable” in the past few years, this comes against the backdrop of “considerable” growth in student enrolments overall. In 2006, he says, about 36 per cent of all new students enrolled in STEM. That had risen to 38 per cent by 2019, while the humanities’ share fell from 20 per cent to 11 per cent over the period.

“As a graduate in STEM in Germany, you usually can choose a well-paid job; you are wanted. As a graduate in humanities, it is more difficult. You often have to search for an entry into the job market,” says Müller.

He also points to two developments in recent years that suggest concern about employability has only been growing: the expansion of courses combining practical fields of study – such as health and law – and a greater share of students choosing to attend universities of applied science, known as Fachhochschulen.

“In 2000, only 31 per cent of new students enrolled at the universities of applied science; 69 per cent went to a university. By 2019, it had changed: 43 per cent chose a Fachhochschule,” says Müller. “The USP of the Fachhochschulen is the combination of academic and practically oriented education. This trend makes clear that students more and more keep a close eye on employability.”

While this focus on employability could be tied to economic conditions, Müller also stresses the role of policymakers: “To increase the number of STEM graduates is an explicit policy goal. The land of poets and thinkers is dependent on specialists in engineering, programming and developing,” he says.


Another country where there has arguably been an explicit push by politicians in recent years for school-leavers to study STEM is the UK.

Employability has dominated government rhetoric around how to measure the outcomes from higher education. Initiatives such as the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset, which uses tax records to link graduate salaries with degrees studied, are increasingly part of ministers’ armoury in attacking what they perceive as “low-quality” courses. While this may have more to do with targeting particular institutions rather than subjects, it is arts and humanities fields that often come under most scrutiny.

Longer-term enrolment trends in the UK also suggest a shift towards STEM. The Unesco data indicate that the proportion of graduates who studied these fields has been rising since 2012 – the year when undergraduate tuition fees tripled, increasing the onus on universities to demonstrate the employability of their graduates.

But whereas the structure of the German economy justifies the country’s increased focus on STEM, the UK rationale is less clear, according to Hetan Shah, chief executive of the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences.

“A really key point is that the UK is an 80 per cent services economy. Sometimes people forget that,” he says. “When you think of UK business, it’s a knowledge-based creative economy. Sometimes politicians can latch on to a particular narrative and it isn’t always rooted, actually, in the data.”

Shah adds that research by the academy on longer-term graduate outcomes backs this up, showing little difference in the likelihood of arts, humanities and social sciences graduates being employed, compared with STEM graduates. And even the salary differentials are often overstated. Humanities and social science graduates tend to have lower starting salaries, but then see strong wage growth – although even 10 years after graduation there is still a clear gap in median earnings compared with STEM, Shah admits.

“But I suppose…our view is that degrees are about more than employment and more than giving you skills for the economy,” he adds. “So we do think you need wider measures to look at the quality and value of degrees.”

Australia’s government is also sending signals about subject priorities that do not necessarily reflect the actual experience of graduates when they enter the labour market, according to Kylie Brass, director of policy and research at the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She says that legislation announced by the federal government last year designed to boost “job-ready graduates” by making some science subjects cheaper to study “was premised on the assumption that STEM equals employability. Yet this is not backed up by the evidence. The academy said at the time…that the reforms send the wrong signals to universities about employability, industry needs and the future of work.”

Humanities and social science enrolments in Australia have been on the up over the past decade, with a 27 per cent increase in full-time equivalent undergraduate numbers between 2005 and 2019. However, for domestic students, the total appears to have peaked just before the pandemic, while, as a share of all students, humanities enrolments have actually fallen, from 29 per cent to 26 per cent.

Graph showing full-time equivalent bachelor’s students at Australian universities by subject 2005-2019

The debate is also complicated by which subjects are included under the “humanities” umbrella. The British Academy focuses on a wide group of subjects under the acronym SHAPE (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy/environment), which includes a very broad range of subjects, including popular fields such as economics. In the US, the humanities definition excludes the social sciences; while in Australia, they are included under a “society and culture” banner, but creative arts have their own separate classification.

Broader definitions risk obscuring nuance. For instance, Marek Kwiek, Unesco chair in institutional research and higher education policy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, has presented data showing that, in research, social science is internationalising at a similar rate to the natural sciences, while the humanities remain largely solo-authored fields within single nations.

Part of the explanation for that is simply that the humanities often focus on histories, issues or bodies of work that have a local or monolingual purview, but this inevitably limits humanities researchers’ outputs and citation counts compared with colleagues in other faculties. And that can lead to adverse consequences.

“If, in general, reviewers or [grant] panel members are metrics-oriented, they will always have an inclination to choose people with more citations and, especially, more publications,” Kwiek warns.

That said, there is little indication, in the UK at least, that funding for humanities disciplines is declining. The proportion of the total research council budget that goes to the Arts and Humanities Research Council has always been low because of the relative expense of scientific research, but it has held steady in recent years at about 3.7 per cent. The Economic and Social Research Council has also maintained its share, at about 5.7 per cent.

Graph showing proportion of total UK research council budget allocated to the AHRC and ESRC 2015-2021

According to Shah, there are “benefits” to the SHAPE category because its constituent disciplines “are all getting at issues to do with society, culture, behaviour and people. It is quite helpful to think about [SHAPE] as a complement to STEM.”

However, he concedes that where the overall figures mask particularly large fluctuations within certain disciplines, this needs to be flagged up. For instance, in the UK, there has been a clear enrolment decline in historical and philosophical studies (down 11.6 per cent from 2007-08 to 2016-17, according to Universities UK), languages (down 21.3 per cent) and education (down 25.5 per cent). Even within languages, the picture on enrolments is complicated, as universities shift provision to combined degrees.

Graph showing number of students in the UK by subject 2007-08 and 2016-17

“The key is to be forensic where we can on what are the real issues,” Shah says. “With languages, it is very clear that there is a pipeline issue [from secondary schools]. But, with other subjects, it is not always clear what the issues are. So we try to be careful to base what we’re saying on the data we’ve got.”

International recruitment is another factor that can muddy the waters on enrolments. As Caroline Wagner, Wolf chair in international affairs at Ohio State University, points out: “The majority of students who come to the West to study do so in STEM fields since it has a higher payoff, easier transfer and less need for language proficiency.” This may cause STEM enrolments to dwarf those in the humanities even when there is less domestic demand for them.

Equally, “an argument could be made that globalisation in the form of enhanced trade competition ratchets up the need for [domestic] workers with stronger technical skills”, says Wagner. This is especially true when nations are competing for geopolitical pre-eminence. She notes that US-China rivalry “motivated” recent legislative moves in the US to “put significantly more money into STEM education”.

Meanwhile, concerns that overseas students “usurp places that might be filled with American students” endure despite a lack of actual evidence. The National Science Foundation, for instance, has talked about the “missing million” in STEM – “Americans who should have gone into STEM but did not”, says Wagner. “The NSF wants to change this and encourage lots more students into STEM. Such a switch would come at the expense of the humanities or the social sciences,” she says.

As for domestic STEM enrolments in rapidly developing economic systems, the picture is not as clear as might be expected. For instance, Chinese Ministry of Education figures suggest that some humanities fields saw steep enrolment growth between 2008 and 2019. Examples include literature (up 29 per cent), history (45 per cent) and art (82 per cent), while science grew by just 2 per cent, according to Lili Yang, a postdoctoral researcher at the UK’s Centre for Global Higher Education, based at the University of Oxford. However, engineering saw a 57 per cent rise, and in terms of absolute numbers, this subject towers over all others in China, with almost 1.5 million new starters in 2019, compared with about 440,000 in art and 420,000 in literature.

Graph showing number of new intake students in China by subject 2008-2019

Yang says her sense is that there is “a decreasing interest in pursuing a humanities degree” among Chinese students and their families, “largely because of the employment and career considerations”. However, she explains, university places are allocated to universities by central government on the basis, largely, of its own “preferences, decisions and plans”.

Domestic enrolment figures in India also carry a health warning, according to Saikat Majumdar, professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University.

“People in India register in higher education institutions for various reasons that often have nothing to do with any interest in the field concerned,” he says. However, there has been “a narrative of enthusiasm about the professional STEM fields…that has tended to push the arts and humanities to the margins, for obvious reasons of career possibilities, both real and imagined”, Majumdar adds.

He concedes that the country’s new National Education Policy has a “kind of programmatic cheerleading of interdisciplinary liberal arts education” and says there seems to be a “genuine commitment” to humanities’ place in that plan. However, “there is also a rhetorical attempt to create an Indian story of the humanities that is exclusively Hindu and Sanskritic, at the expense of the cultural plurality of the country’s long history”.

Majumdar is also concerned that the emerging private liberal arts universities and colleges, such as Ashoka, where humanities study is flourishing, are accessible only to India’s elite. “For new entrants to the middle class, or aspirants to that class, the STEM disciplines offer a far quicker route to upward mobility,” he says. “With some exceptions, studying arts and humanities in India remains largely a matter of family legacy, the culture at home and certain communal preferences.”


This concern about the humanities’ restriction to those from the most advantaged backgrounds is also a common thread in the West, where some see elitism as the inevitable result of students being encouraged to measure higher education against tangible outcomes. And quite apart from its effect on undergraduate cohorts or the demography of the creative industries, this has important implications for research.

“If the arts and humanities become the preserve of the privileged and the rich, then the kind of research you might be getting at the other end is not necessarily going to be representative,” says the British Academy’s Shah. And there is danger in letting research capacity or diversity wither in areas that might be of strategic importance. “For example, if you let your language provision in some areas go down…while at the same time you’ve got policy ambitions around being ‘global Britain’, how does that fit together?” he asks.

The AAAS’ Townsend says that as long as a “floor” of basic subjects in the humanities is being taught in institutions, those subjects will be able to “rise again” if demand picks up – but such a revival will not be possible if “colleges and universities are shutting down whole departments”.

Concerns over staffing levels are also emerging in some systems. Statistics from the Excellence in Research for Australia assessment exercise show an 8 per cent fall in research staff between 2012 and 2018 in humanities, arts and social science fields, while Times Higher Education’s own data suggest that the country’s share of scholars working in these areas is well below that of other major university systems.

Graph showing numbers of full-time equivalent humanities/social science staff submitted to Excellence in Research for Australia 2012 and 2018

Graeme Turner, emeritus professor in the University of Queensland’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, points out that these figures do not reflect the pandemic-related job losses that took a further toll on disciplines that were already heavily casualised. “Suffice to say that…the prospect of employment for early career humanities academics is currently very poor,” says Turner, who was co-author with the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ Brass on the academy’s 2014 Mapping the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia report.

Pressure on the humanities “is not a new problem” in a cultural climate where “it is relatively easy” to depict these disciplines as “the most privileged and least useful of the things that universities do”, Turner says. “This [argument] requires a continual evidence-based rebuttal, but one that resists simply arguing for the humanities in terms of, say, their economic benefit. Difficult though it can be, the humanities must defend not only their practical application but also their core concerns around history, criticism and critique.”

Müller says that in Germany, too, the “importance of humanities has to be proven constantly”. But there is no better place to start than with their relevance to current debates, he adds. “If humanities don’t have answers for big social questions, their value will be questioned more and more.”

Shah agrees, but is “relentlessly optimistic” that the humanities and social sciences will have the capacity to provide such answers. “At the heart of any difficult problem is a problem about people and humans and culture,” he says. “The risk is of trapping yourself in the narrative that it’s all bad and it’s all going wrong; I don’t actually think that is the case.”

He also suggests that if microcredentials become popular, those in humanities subjects could spark interest in full degrees among people who did not have a chance to go to university earlier in life: “You might have been a single mum who had kids when you were quite young, and this gives you the confidence to get into education,” he says.

Townsend says that an AAAS survey from about a year ago shows that there is indeed “a high degree of interest in the humanities as a subject people had wished they had taken, especially with languages other than English”. So while courses such as coding boot camps are very popular, there is some evidence that people who are going back to college later in life are taking a substantial number of humanities courses, too,” he says.

“It does suggest the value of the microcredential as a way of attracting more people,” he says. “The challenge is working out what the value of those microcredentials actually is.”

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