Field of Study (Oh the Humanities!)

Alex Usher, Commentary, Education

This is part II of a blog on new enrolment data. I’ll be focussing on the universities data today because the change there is more dynamic.  (I know, I know, college peeps: I don’t pay enough attention to you.  I’ll try to make this up to you next week).

So let’s look at the division of undergraduate enrolment for a second.  Figure 1 shows the split between fields of science.  The Big Six are Social Science & Law (20%), Business/Commerce/Administration (19%), Science – here meaning a combination of physical sciences, life sciences, math/computer sciences and agriculture (16%), Humanities (13%), Health (11%) and Engineering (10%).  Together these six fields make up almost 90% of total enrolment.

Figure 1: Shares of Total University Undergraduate Enrolment by Field, 2015-2016

That probably doesn’t sound too surprising on the face of it.  But if you look at it from a longer-term perspective the change is stunning.  As recently as 2001, humanities enrolments were the same size as social sciences and were roughly the same as health and engineering enrolments combined.  Some of this change has been a very long process, but it has accelerated enormously since the financial crisis, as shown below in figure 2.

Figure 2: Change in Undergraduate Enrolments by Field, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-2016 (2006-07 = 100)

In the period leading up to the recession, all undergraduate fields of study were growing.  Not quite at the same rate, obviously, but the arrow was heading in the same direction for everyone.  Then, after 2009, enrolments began diverging wildly.  For demographic reasons, overall growth rates started to flatten out around 2009 and demographics are also behind the fall in education faculty enrolments (school boards are hiring fewer teachers as student numbers flatten or fall).  Still, overall undergraduate enrolments continued to grow, albeit more slowly: by 10% between 2009/10 and 2015/16.

But what happens after 2009/10 is just a massive dispersion in growth rates, which, as far as I can tell, is likely unprecedented in Canadian history.  Most fields of study grew by an amount equal to or slightly greater than the overall average.  Meanwhile, Health fields grew by 18%, and Engineering by 35%.  The rest of the sciences grew a little bit less quickly overall, but the math/computer science portion grew by a mindboggling 64%.

The humanities?  Down 21.4%.

Now, this kind of thing is bound to cause friction.  In some fields, people are going to be overworked; others will find their workloads lessening.  But professors are specialized workers – you can’t just move them out of one field and into another.  You can’t even get them to retire so you can hire a someone new in another area: they just hang on and on and on.  You just have to make do the best you can.

But what one could do – at least in theory – is to start to cut back the number of PhD students you take in.  Because in humanities – more so than in other fields – a doctorate really is supposed to lead to a teaching position.  Of course, it doesn’t in practice for most people, and one learns some useful skills along the way – but that’s really what it’s for.  So you’d think that with sliding undergraduate enrolments and hence reduced future job opportunities, humanities might be cutting back a bit on doctoral enrolments, right?


Figure 3: Change in Humanities Enrolments by Level, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-2016 (2006-07 = 100)

Now, you wouldn’t expect doctoral enrolments to fall quite as quickly as undergraduate ones.  They take longer to finish, for one thing, so it takes longer for a drop in new enrolments to be reflected in total enrolments.  But you’d still expect them to track a little better than this.  Figure 3 effectively implies a big and widening gap between PhD completions and future academic job prospects.  A genuine question thus arises: are humanities faculties telling their doctoral students about this widening gap?  And if not, why not?

Enrolment shifts have profound consequences to universities and we are currently undergoing one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in history.  It is somewhat surprising that we are not having more open conversations about the effects.

Originally posted on Higher Education Strategy.