Priced To Clear: Commodifying Our Culture

Priced To Clear: Commodifying Our Culture

The Evisceration of the Humanities Division

By Joe Higham, Mikayla Cahill & Laura Starling

Four-hundred people stood on the steps of Otago University’s clock tower August 24 this year in a call to have their careers and academic integrity acknowledged and respected. The Division of Humanities, which has recently embarked upon a ‘Management of Change’ process, has publicly outlined that this process would result in redundancies of fifteen to twenty staff members across five departments, namely the anthropology and archaeology, English and linguistics, history, languages and cultures, and music. The announcement sent a whole host of emotions throughout much of the division, its staff, and its students. This decision would likely have occurred within any academic division in the university if it was facing the same issues. Protesters called the university to rescind its decision to reform and leave the departments and staff feeling secure, safe, and worthwhile.

4Humanities, an organisation that works in association with the University College London (UCL), describes the humanities as “academic disciplines that seek to understand and interpret the human experience, from individuals to entire cultures, engaging in the discovery, preservation, and communication of the past and present record to enable a deeper understanding of contemporary society.” Strong, stable, and fair democracies are built on and around the humanities, but these subjects are generally the first to face the brunt of cuts to university finances. The University is facing a situation seen throughout the western world’s tertiary education sectors.

The humanities division at Otago University, for the last five years, have witnessed a decline in students enrolling in their courses. The numbers are not insignificant by any means, as 4.6 percent fewer enrollments (equivalent to 237 full-time students) were seen by the division in comparison to last year. There are no longer enough people choosing to study within the humanities division. However, before looking at which departments to cut in order to save the division from this continuing decline, we need to ask why it’s declining.

The university, as an institution, is becoming more neoliberal in both nature and performance. Neoliberalism is a policy model that emerged out of the USA, in which services are provided to users who pay for them, with emphasis being on the entrepreneur, deregulation of the labour market, and a hands off approach to the economy in the belief that it will resolve itself. As this decision shows, the university is focused on generating profit over providing quality education. 

Allocation of educational funding from central government will impact the way the university determines what divisions it wants to back and those that they do not. From a neoliberal perspective it is redundant to fund a division that has a declining role. Rosemary Overell, a branch member from the Tertiary Education Union and member of the subcommittee for the humanities campaign described the situation as:


a broader case of the neoliberalisation of the university…  focused on… eking out figures and profits, treating the university like a business rather than thinking about cohering a quality education which produces critical and reflective citizens…[it is] a result of the National Government policy around education which values vocational work, STEM subjects, rather than subjects which foster people who might be critical of the neoliberal capitalist machine under which we live.


As the university amends its priorities and goals towards that of a business rather than an  educational institution it seems to be favouring the subjects that generate the most profit, the most quantifiable level of success, rather than aspiring to provide the best quality. When promoting the University of Otago the successful and competitive medical, dentistry, commerce, and science sectors, rather than the the humanities subjects that have been ranked as some of the best in the world. Archaeology, Anthropology, English Language and Literature, History, Law, Performing Arts, and Psychology were all listed in this year’s top 100 ranked university subjects in the world, according to the QS World University Rankings. many other subjects from humanities fell into the top 150, and 200, yet their achievements are eclipsed by the belief that humanities graduates are less employable than graduates from STEM subjects. 

Lack of inclusion and representation is destructive to the way prospective students of these subjects perceive and consider studying courses.The jobs might be declining but the lack of interest and curiosity in humanities subjects is because students are not provided with truthful and informative depictions of how fruitful and important they can be.

However, even if humanities subjects were given the spotlight like STEM subjects are, other factors also contribute to the decline in students. Many students understand that the current economy is in turmoil and want security and stability when they leave university STEM subjects like the sciences, finance, business and medicine, although highly competitive, are often very stable, and high paying career choices. They are safe options.

The humanities enable us to understand how society performs and operates. It teaches us how structures of power and discipline are constructed and upheld. It trains us to be critical, analytical, and strategic thinkers who develop complex resolutions from very little information while simultaneously encouraging the mind to think creatively and seek for a deeper understanding of the social world. The British Academy states that humanities “explore what it means to be human: the words, ideas, narratives and the art and artefacts that help us make sense of our lives and the world we live in; how we have created it, and are created by it.”

People think that if you study something in the arts you are only going to be looking for a job in that particular area, and then be stuck in shit creek when you can’t find one. This isn’t true. Studying a degree majoring in theatre and minoring in social anthropology that does not mean you only work in those fields. Humanities teach skills that are valuable to almost all aspects of employed, post-university life: critical thinking, reading, and the skill of academic writing and reporting are transferable and sought after skills. A 2012 survey of all United States born Chief Executive Officers (652) showed that nearly 60 percent had graduated with a degree within the humanities. A separate survey in 2011 showed that of the Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom, five percent degrees in vocational (STEM) subjects, 10 percent had scientific qualifications, 20 percent was unknown, and 65 percent held degrees from either social sciences, humanities, or the arts. More than two thirds of humanities graduates will enter the private sector in their search for employment.

Graduates from the humanities are often (and somewhat ironically) employed at an extremely comparable rate to the rest of their peers: the 2006 Canadian census found that 96.4 percent of graduates with degrees in Theology and Religious Studies found employment, as well as 94.6 percent of History graduates. According to CIRCA, in Canada in 2008 (the year the recession hit and cheese skyrocketed to unbelievable prices) 91 percent percent of humanities graduates found work after they graduated. Why? Because the skills and forms of communication you learned from the humanities are transferable and easily adaptable to many other areas of life. 89 percent of employers want their employees to be able to effectively communicate in both verbal and non-verbal means, 81 percent of employers want their employees to be able to think critically and be able to make analytically reasonable decisions, 75 percent of employers want their employees to be able to analyse and solve complex problems in unique and creative ways, and 75 percent of employers want their employees to connect their choices to ethical decisions. 

Harlene Hayne recently addressed this issue in the ODT, although how she refuted the arguments of those opposed to the redundancies was minimal at best. She rehashed the foundational statements the university had previously provided, i.e. Otago University is not alone in this situation and these declines are being seen across the western world. The university’s recurring arguments suggests they are are either withholding controversial reasons to overhaul these five departments or they don’t have anything better to refute it with. This response is so similar to the, ‘let’s join the club rather than meaningfully deal with these declines’ position we saw them take recently on the divestment issue. Such an enormous decision (not only the future of up to twenty staff members, but the future of the humanities at Otago University) cannot be made on these unhelpful comparisons to other institutions in the ‘western world’. the university should compare similar universities who have faced similar problems of declining enrolments, understand how they prevented that decline continuing and then decide whether this will or could work here. However, the most important factor for a decision of this magnitude is transparency. 

The sort of transparency a lot of the staff, and many students, would welcome is who is actually involved in what? Particularly, who will be involved in cuts and who will be involved in reappointing staff once those redundancies are made? The process is ‘spill and fill’, in which redundancies are made and then those staff, along with any other applications, can reapply for the, albeit fewer positions again. It would seem counter-intuitive not to appoint individuals with qualifications in the specific departments they are involved in the rehiring for. However, this is expected to happen. Assurances by Hayne that she and Pro Vice Chancellor for the Humanities Division, Tony Ballantyne, both hold humanities degrees does little to reassure anyone involved with the decision. As far as Critic understands, apart from Tony Ballantyne in the history department, it is unlikely that anyone from within that specific department will be involved in the rehiring process. When those who have been made redundant in the Archaeology and Anthropology department are privileged enough to have the opportunity to reapply for their former positions, there won’t be a single Archaeologist or an Anthropologist on that rehiring panel.

Apart from the odd employee raising their head from within their rabbit hole, or a public protest allowing brief safety in numbers as the fox continues to pace around in wait, relatively little has been heard from staff within the five affected departments. The reason is largely due to a fear of one of two things happening. Firstly, an increasing decline in EFTS caused by speaking out about the redundancies which the university have continually said will stoke the fire burning through the division; or secondly, that by doing so they will become the target of the redundancies themselves. Lack of transparency has fuelled fear, as without thoroughly understanding the process the university has embarked upon, employees feel the need to tread carefully. They fear that anything they say will affect their beloved departments or affect their careers. Their livelihoods and families are ever more precariously balanced as the process reaches its culmination. Instilling fear of expressing themselves into employees is what an institution who has something to hide would do. A threat of further EFTS decline is a concern for all staff and should remain so, but by imposing this fear on staff, the university is sweeping the issue under the carpet. When Critic attended the media briefing Tony Ballantyne gave at the inception of the Management of Change, he reiterated several times that staff and students alike can and should influence the process. Much like a politician, the answer was a promise that was unlikely to be sincere, yet in the short-term provided the necessary reassurances to a department filled with rumours and chinese whispers. In the long-term, perhaps honesty would have been better: no you won’t be able to have a say, and by the way, if you talk publically, everyone around you will be affected. 

The cuts to jobs and reduction in funding to the humanities division just two years after Dunedin became New Zealand’s one and only UNESCO City of Literature seems counterintuitive at best. In an ODT article following the announcement, Dunedin’s Mayor Dave Cull noted that the award would “help the city attract cultural tourism, tertiary students and new residents.” The university’s decision will likely play some part in undoing the hard work Dunedin has put into progress the literary integrity of the city. Speaking to Critic, Tony Ballantyne stressed that “it is vital for students to understand that there are no departments or programmes being closed down” and “that all students will be able to complete their current degree programmes”. Both high school and university students are not deaf to the ongoing processes at the university, and it would be myopic to think that their decision to study a humanities subject would not be somewhat affected by the changing structure. 

Additionally, students don’t always have the foresight to consider the job prospects and salary rates within each specific field they are considering their studies in. If one does choose their course solely on the basis of these two factors alone, they are ultimately being lead down the wrong path. Students should be urged to choose their courses on the basis of their interest in the particular subject, and not the amount of zeros on their paychecks once they graduate. University is a significant portion of an 18 year old’s life and so to not enjoy the subject you’re studying, and then subsequently also dislike it for the 50 years you’re employed in that field after graduation is a horrible position for anyone to be in. Unfortunately, central government is funnelling students away from subjects they could potentially love studying because of the neoliberal agenda they are pushing, a situation that could eventually, if continued, see students abandon enrolling in humanities en masse in the future.

Universities were ultimately created to foster places for teaching, learning, and researching rather than to profit at the expense of the institution’s staff and students. The university is continuing to push its rhetoric of the necessity to make cuts to its struggling humanities departments while it also boasts of having enormous assets, essentially rubbing salt into the wound of the staff whose morale is already at breaking point. Whether the move was a result of neoliberalism or not, it leaves all parties at a loss. The university itself are cutting back on top performing departments, desperate to claw-back the money they believe they are throwing down the drain; students will find themselves with fewer lecturers who have less time to consult students who need help, and may potentially have fewer papers to enroll for in the near future, and even put off altogether from studying humanities; and staff may or may not have a job come the 1st December, and will certainly feel the ripples caused by this Management of Change for some time yet. 

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2016.
Posted 10:50am Saturday 8th October 2016 by Joe Higham and Mikayla Cahill.