A humanities student in Sweden is worth a third of a science student. This may sound like a provocative statement but in cash terms it is completely accurate. The humanities are suffering from chronic underinvestment not only in Sweden, but across the West. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust recently noted, that we have ‘eroded our support for humanities‘ and that ’emphasis on the short term can mean especially painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real.’
Anyone involved in Higher Education is aware of this issue but seem either unwilling, or unable, to counter this trend. As Scottish universities try to survive with less funds, senior management teams have looked first to the humanities to make savings. There are no headlines of ‘Life Science Department to lose 100 members of staff’, ‘University axes partnership with pharmaceutical company’, or ‘Professor of Signal Transduction role made obsolete’. But in the UK as a whole, we have seen Middlesex University terminate its philosophy department, Sussex limit their history scope to post-1900, and the only British Professor of Palaeography role removed from existence.
You will not be seeing the University of Edinburgh History Department going into partnership with an arms manufacturer or pharmaceutical company, and perhaps herein lies the problem. Economic short-sightedness and a fetish with the present, has seen universities elevate science over the humanities. There has been an intellectual attack upon the humanities, to the extent that I have witnessed humanities’ students themselves downplaying their degrees. I will not get into mud slinging contests with the sciences – because that would paradox the intentions of this article – but we must try and take a broader perspective when considering the societal, economic, and cultural benefits of all academic disciplines. A doctor saves a life, that is a real benefit. A scientist discovers a new immunisation, that is a real benefit. History, philosophy, and political science can help to frame legislation to alleviate causes of poverty, sectarianism, war, and provide the tools to explore the big questions of who we are and where we fit into the world. Harder to measure, but these are real benefits.
Universities who fail to understand this equation, in admittedly testing times, run the risk of undermining the essence of what a university is. Rather than fostering a desire for discovery and knowledge, they become engine rooms – laboratories motivated simply by producing the next multi-million pound drug. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the other elite universities understand this. But we risk a situation where the study of the humanities becomes the playground of only the very rich.
There is, however, one country who better understands the future and necessary balance of Higher Education: China. Whilst their growth in the sciences has been noted, sneaking in under the radar is unprecedented investment in the humanities. At institutions which have hitherto been the domain of the sciences, the Chinese are restructuring to bring in the humanities. One such example is Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou who have introduced a liberal arts college. Two thirds of students in China currently study science, a mirror image of the UK where two thirds study humanities, and perhaps as we try to balance – and risk outweighing the other side – so the Chinese are looking to balance their graduate output. Although I’m inclined to think more is going on here.
China is emerging as a super-power (if not already there) and have emulated the West in many areas. But in some distinct ways they are emulating our strength of fifty years ago. They seem to understand that a price tag cannot tell you the true worth of everything. So, to bring hope and ambition to their populace, the Chinese have spent billions on developing a space program which includes a manned lunar station by 2020 and this week saw the launching of their space station. They join America and Russia as the only other countries to have achieved this unilaterally. The Chinese also understand that to develop a strong society which is aware of its heritage and its potential future, so it must invest in the humanities.
We may scoff at the Chinese lack of democracy, human rights record, or other aspects of their culture which we find worrying. But one thing is for sure, they are not so quick to destroy their cultural and historical hearts – the humanities departments of universities.