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Universities across New Zealand took part in the national Love Humanities day of action on February 22.
Organised by the Tertiary Education Union (TEU), the day centred around a teach-in at the University of Otago and responded to a wider concern about persistent undervaluing of humanities subjects.
In 2012, the then-Minister for Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce, told Radio New Zealand that he would be shifting funding away from humanities towards science, technology, math, and engineering subjects.
In late 2016 the University of Otago cut the equivalent of 16 academic positions from its humanities division in response to decreased enrolments. Other universities, including Victoria, have also undergone restructuring and reduced funding.
At Victoria University, the day of action involved a public panel chaired by the TEU which sought to “encourage discussion about the place of the humanities in our society more generally […] and raise this as a political question.”
When approached by Salient about the day of action, Paul Goldsmith, the Minister for Tertiary Education, recognised the contribution that humanities make to the economy and our culture.
However he stated that “the Government has been focused on ensuring that tuition subsidy rates reflect the different costs of provision, and in particular addressing the evidence that the sciences and agriculture were comparatively underfunded.”
Dougal McNeill, chair of Victoria’s public panel and secretary of the TEU’s Victoria University branch, viewed the “funding freeze” for humanities over the last five years as part of “a serious and ongoing assault on the place of the university as a critic and conscience of society, and a site for free discussion.”
Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford declined to discuss the campaign specifically, but said, “the university supports the rights of staff to take part in any legal protest or demonstrations.”
He also stated that the humanities are “integral to the core positioning and strategic vision” of the university.
“Without destroying what we often want to achieve in the Bachelor of Arts (BA) — the ability for people to be free thinking and engaged in democratic and social issues — […] we’ve been working hard to make sure that we can say, hand on heart, that there are cross-cutting competencies that come with doing a BA relevant to an employer.”
However McNeill criticised a global shift towards a “business model” approach to university education, where humanities graduates are valued only on employability.
“Are we just businesses that exist to compete with one another and to produce this alienated product called education, […] or are we playing a role in actually opening up society, and our own work, for critical examination and for students to be participants in?”