Humanities cuts beggar belief and society in general

Photo from ODT files
Photo from ODT files
As a former lecturer in the humanities at the University of Otago,  Alyth Grant  cannot sit on the sidelines any longer.

Having  just read the second of Millie Lovelock's excellent columns in defence of the humanities at the university (ODT, 13.10.16), I must support her and my colleagues.

Being retired, I no longer need to have the fear of speaking out on behalf of my department, but I remember the helplessness and anger at not being able to do so when languages were last suffering cuts. The ``critic and conscience of society role'' does not cease when you are no longer a member of the university.

Millie is just the sort of product of which the university should be most proud. She is highly articulate, thoughtful and not afraid to argue cogently and publicly for an important - if, probably, in this case lost - cause.

This university has produced and employed so many people who have helped enrich New Zealand, indeed world society.

Anthony Ritchie's wonderful Gallipolli to the Somme in the recent arts festival moved many to tears. But it was more than music that he composed: the research that lay behind the music into accounts of the war and the literature it produced must have cost him many, many hours and was as crucial to the piece as the music itself.

The soloists, Martin Snell and Anna Leese, are both graduates of the music department at Otago and acquired their first knowledge of German there, languages being crucial to their careers. It was wonderful to see them back in Dunedin for this performance.

The Dunedin City Orchestra, also performing in that event, depends on music department staff and students. Many in the audience must now be wondering why the university cannot afford to sustain the music department at the level that enables it to produce and support such talent.

Over the years I have been amazed at where all our language graduates have gone in their careers. Many of our students in languages and other humanities disciplines combined their arts degree with law, commerce or science. Making that possible used to be one of the strengths of Otago and often required co-operation across the academic divisions, working timetables flexibly.

Consequently, humanities graduates permeate society, often in public positions. Justin Lester, for example, the newly elected Mayor of Wellington, made use of his German to go on exchange to Heidelberg University and continued with study there, acquiring a Heidelberg master of laws.

Our local MP David Clark is another graduate in the humanities (German and theology) who completed postgraduate study in Germany. And the director of one of the best recent productions at the Globe Theatre, Keith Scott, was drawing on his degree in German in re-working Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart for the arts festival. As a graduate in history as well, he has also contributed to the knowledge of local history, with his study of the World War 1 soldiers from the Maniototo.

On the international stage, another carefully chosen combination of music and German from Otago has led Andrew Crooks to a position as choir director at the Komische Oper in Berlin.

Our graduates, like the staff who taught them, have done the university proud. They have been capable of holding their own at an international level, even in a foreign language environment.

But subject disciplines that get stripped down to a less than minimum staff cannot hope to supply the breadth and depth of content that make the basis from which graduates go out prepared for advanced study or to compete for positions abroad.

Until now, they have been able to do that, even since the cutbacks in the 1990s. Back then, universities across the country accepted that three staff was the minimum required for a language programme. Now it seems they are to be expected to achieve the same high standards on less.

Further, disciplines that have earned the university high status in the PBRF stakes and on the international academic stage are being similarly undermined. When highly successful professors retire but then are not replaced by new staff, the potential achievers of the future, how is a university to retain its international standing?

Otago University seems in danger of losing its way. It is not poor. There is plenty of money to back the Highlanders and to beautify the campus. It is only compartmentalised thinking behind the allocation of resources that makes the managers deem such things more useful or necessary. They lose sight of their real mission.

The cuts will hurt not just the staff and students, but ultimately the quality of our society.

Alyth Grant was a senior lecturer in the department of languages and cultures before her retirement in 2007.


Any debate on the humanities cuts has a significant lack of intellectual rigor if it fails to even acknowledge the prime cause of the cuts - far fewer students than there used to be.

Similarly the debate has lacked any discussion on why students studying other subjects should pay to subsidise humanities when it is obviously overstaffed.

The line from many people who blame the University, but totally fail to address the major causes and issues in the debate, is both simplistic and naive.