Uni doing little about Govt neglect of humanities

The University of Otago is not a business selling products to customers; it is a public institution providing higher education to its citizens, research for the public good and service to the community, writes Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey.

University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne's comments about the humanities departments (''Busting myths about proposed division cuts'', ODT 20.9.16) require a response.

Her statement that humanities enrolments have dropped over the past six years is true. It is also true that the Government has significantly increased funding for Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects during this period, while humanities funding has not been increased.

The Minister for Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce, has directed universities to increase their intake in Stem subjects. He has also encouraged high school pupils to pursue qualifications in these areas, arguing they should base their choice of career on the salary they can earn immediately after graduation.

Mr Joyce has expressed his satisfaction at how successful his plans have been. There is clearly a lack of commitment to broad-based education overall, and to the humanities specifically, by this Government. Unfortunately, the Otago management has not countered these efforts.

Prof Hayne argues that humanities departments require cross-subsidies from other areas and that this is unsustainable. We reject any attempt to play division against division, department against department or staff member against staff member.

Universities are bulk funded, so management has control over how the funds are distributed. Management would have been tracking the fall in humanities numbers over the past six years.

However, they chose to do little of consequence during this time to work with departments to increase enrolments and/or develop plans and strategies to address the situation.

What is clearly not a myth, as any visitor to the campus can see, is that the university management is spending millions on campus beautification projects, while proposing to cut staff.

In its efforts to enhance the image of the university, Otago is earning a reputation for valuing pavers over people.

We agree with Prof Hayne when she states that the university's critic and conscience role ''is not restricted to a single academic division''.

We value the sciences and other disciplines as much as we value humanities. Value is a broad concept that is measured by more than the current number of students enrolled.

It encompasses contributions to civil society, to communities, iwi and hapu, as well as contributions to expanding knowledge and the ability to challenge the status quo.

It is the university management, not staff, who have framed the issue as one of competition between academics in the humanities division and those in other divisions.

Another myth that needs to be busted is the supposed fact that the university is a business. The university is not a business selling products to customers; it is a public institution providing higher education to its citizens, research for the public good and service to the community.

A university is a community of scholars, students and support staff; it is a living body of knowledge. To dissect it into separate, competing units destroys the effectiveness of an integrated whole.

Staff and students at the University of Otago, and many members of the larger community, have been demonstrating their support for the humanities with the #LoveHumanities campaign.

The management has an opportunity to demonstrate that it, too, has a ''long-term commitment to humanities''. We invite them to take up this opportunity.

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