Michael Neill: Humanities in peril as universities wind down studies


It all began in New Zealand with Rogernomics, the neo-liberal transformation of the economy in the late 1980s. For true believers in this now discredited doctrine, education was “a business like any other”, subject like the private sector to top-down managerial efficiencies.

Primary and secondary education, they said, was a “public good”, and therefore to be funded by the state. But tertiary education was a “private good”. Users should therefore pay. Now see the result.

Tertiary institutions were once fully-funded. But successive Governments reduced their contribution to only 33 per cent of tuition costs. Escalating fees pushed local students towards degrees assumed – without clear evidence – to offer better employment prospects.

Universities vigorously recruited high-paying overseas applicants, most of whom seek professional qualifications in areas such as engineering and commerce. Auckland has been particularly successful in attracting such students, signalling their financial importance by housing their disciplines in magnificent new buildings.

But the rush to recruit has more serious academic consequences.

According to the Times Higher Education University Rankings, the University of Auckland ranked 14th in the world for its proportion of overseas students, with 31 per cent prior to Covid.

And yet its staff-student ratio remains among the worst at 1:22. Compare that to the University of Chicago, with the same percentage of foreign students but a ratio of 1:5.

This discounting of education as valuable in its own right damages the more “academic’ areas of study such as pure science, music and the humanities.

At Auckland, where not long ago the staff:student ratio in the Arts Faculty was considered unsatisfactorily high at 1:16, it now stands at over 1:27.

Staff reductions particularly affect small-group teaching. In the Faculty of Arts, the permissible number of students per tutorial has risen from 15 to 30. That would be a full lecture class in most respectable universities.

But at Auckland, many courses offer no tutorials at all. Instead, teachers must lecture to hundreds of students at a time, without providing a forum for testing, exchanging and developing their own ideas.

University managers even promoted the arts building, refurbished on the model of the business school, as “actively discouraging” visits to staff offices without appointments.

Such limitation on face-to-face contact robs students of the sense of belonging to an engaged intellectual community.

Falling enrolments in key disciplines has led inevitably to staff cuts, shrinking curricula and a spiral of decline only accelerated by the Covid pandemic. The disappearance of overseas students plunged the university into financial crisis, necessitating significant economies such as managed redundancies.

But even if international students return, managers will never apply similarly damaging measures to the subjects that draw them here. Once again, arts and humanities will suffer the most.

All these accumulated pressures cause obvious long-term consequences. To take one example, the English Department was once one of the strongest centres of literary study in Australasia. Thirty full-time staff included distinguished writers as well as its internationally renowned academics.

Now reduced to only 13, the department has been forced into an amorphous “school”, along with four other disciplines. At least five of the surviving English staff have agreed to undertake “voluntary retirement” within the next year. None will be replaced. The remaining department is smaller than the one I joined in 1967, when the university was less than a quarter of its present size.

Worse still is the almost total withdrawal of funding for the temporary tutorships that support postgraduate students and maintain the tutorial system.

The reduced number of permanent staff has not only resulted in a significant cutback of course offerings, but also left a disproportionate number of colleagues specialising in “creative writing” rather than in broader areas of literary study.

Colleagues at Otago, Canterbury and Victoria report similarly destructive changes.

To absorb shrinking departments into amorphous “schools” may facilitate “line management”, but it undermines the sense of collegial belonging so important to staff and students alike. Morale is at an all-time low.

Sadly, as a recent Guardian article reports, similar trends are emerging in Australia and many British universities. Other humanities subjects such as philosophy, anthropology, classics and modern languages are experiencing similar downward spirals.

Yet universities can only fulfil their statutory role as “the critic and conscience of society” by nurturing the disciplines that teach the capacity for independent critical thought.

When financial cuts affect the ability of the general library to keep up with current worldwide publications, learning resources become seriously depleted. Specialist libraries in fine arts, music, and architecture have been closed.

The managers now controlling our universities call students “clients” or “customers”. But they actually cheat students even of the rewards promised by their commercial language.

Matters will probably get worse now that the pandemic has starkly exposed the danger of over-dependence on income from overseas students. The University of Auckland faces a loss of $30 million from Chinese students alone, leading to a predicted shortfall of at least $48m by 2023.

The new Vice-Chancellor anticipates further staff cuts in addition to the at least $9.5m already made by herself and her predecessor.

The Labour Party promised to make tertiary education free again by 2024. An admirable goal. But unless they rethink the nature, purpose and funding base of universities, further decline is inevitable. After all, the primary reason for the very existence of tertiary institutions is to provide young New Zealanders with the best possible education in all fields.

To use an old-fashioned but enduring phrase, universities are not “businesses’, but institutions of higher learning. Tertiary education is indeed a public good.

• Michael Neill is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland.

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