Fewer taking humanities at Otago University

The number of University of Otago students taking humanities has dropped by more than 570 in the past two years, dragging down overall numbers.

The drop in humanities students accounted for 83% of the overall drop in student numbers at the university over the past two years, down 3.5% from 19,568 equivalent full time students (Efts) in 2011 to 18,875 last year.

The university declined to say this week whether the drop in student numbers had affected staff numbers or departmental budgets within the division.

Figures in the agenda of the university's latest council meeting and its 2012 annual report showed students taking humanities courses dropped almost 10% from 5910 Efts in 2011 to 5334 last year.

Humanities pro-vice-chancellor Prof Brian Moloughney said in a statement this week the most significant decline in the division - which includes subjects such as history, English and law - was in the College of Education.

The drop in the College of Education was in part due to the conclusion of a teacher education contract with the Malaysian Government and also fewer domestic students enrolling in teacher education programmes, Prof Moloughney said.

There had been a small decline in bachelor of arts enrolments last year, but no significant change.

Enrolments fluctuate from year to year for a variety of reasons, but there is no significant decline in the number of students undertaking a BA.

''The humanities division helped develop ''informed and critical citizens''.

''The humanities reveal how people have tried to make sense of the world in the past and teach empathy for others.

''They foster social justice and equality. Humanities students are trained to assess complex information and to write clearly and succinctly.''

Co-president of the Otago University branch of the Tertiary Education Union and humanities senior lecturer Dr Brett Nicholls said yesterday the drop was concerning, but he was not aware of any cuts to staff numbers in the division as a result.

''The general feeling around the place is that things are tight ...but I am not aware of any concrete [cutbacks],'' Dr Nicholls said.

The decline in humanities students comes as numbers taking health sciences programmes increases.

The sciences division passed humanities as the university's largest, in terms of student numbers, in 2012.

Students in the health sciences attract more government funding for the university, but the university did not respond to a question asking how it was affected by the change in student mix.

It also did not answer a question over whether it was concerned about the drop in humanities students.

A report tabled at last week's council meeting said ''a number of factors'' led to overall student numbers dropping by 1.9% last year.

''These included the pipeline impact of measures taken internally - notably the tightening of academic progress policies - in recent years to advance the university strategically in terms of the calibre and nature of its student cohort,'' the report said.

Government changes to student support, the strengthening economy - meaning more people were in work - and the high dollar making New Zealand less attractive for international students were other factors contributing to the drop.

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz