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  • Fri, 4, May, 2018 - 5:00:AM

STEM, humanities, and the gender issue with university funding

“What are you going to do with that?” When I tell people that I study English at university, that’s the response I get. If I mention that Law is my other degree, they look at English as a quirky side note – it’s something interesting, helpful in trivia quizzes, but ultimately unnecessary. And it seems to me like that’s the Government’s opinion on studying humanities too.

Universities are shifting funds away from majority-female humanities subjects and channelling them into majority-male STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) subjects. Those funding changes ignore the reasons why women are choosing humanities in the first place.  

On the surface, the changes seem logical. New Zealand needs more STEM workers, so the Government has increased funding for that type of education. To maintain normal funding levels, universities had to shift their focus to STEM. The impacts of that shift are becoming visible.

The cuts to humanities have been extreme. The University of Otago made 16 humanities staff members redundant as well as almost 200 support staff throughout the university. Several arts libraries at the University of Auckland are set to be disestablished. The funding changes have a real impact. They decrease the number of libraries and support staff, the availability of lecturers, and access to resources for humanities students.

No, the funding changes are not intended to disadvantage women. They’re intended to encourage students of all genders into STEM. But the gender differences are clear. Humanities degree holders are about 60% female. In comparison, women make up about 30% of those with a STEM degree. Resources are being channelled from subjects with a majority of female students to subjects with a majority of male students.

The recent focus on encouraging women to study STEM subjects doesn’t mean that increasing funding to those subjects is supporting women. Study after study has shown that there’s a pervasive bias towards men when it comes to science. Reflection and change needs to occur within those industries to eliminate that bias and make STEM more welcoming for women. Without targeted funding to decrease the gender imbalance in STEM subjects, focusing on those subjects disadvantages female students.

Choosing between humanities, with fewer resources and less funding, or STEM, with a proven bias against women, is not a choice that young women should have to make. Female students prefer humanities for reasons other than the simple fact that science is male-dominated. Harassment and unconscious bias are valid concerns. Increasing funding to STEM might encourage women to study the subjects, but it won’t change the underlying problems women face in the industry.

Prioritising STEM subjects implies that humanities are less necessary and less valuable. Many young women genuinely prefer humanities, and their interests shouldn’t be devalued by a job shortage. Family members feel that they can make disparaging remarks about my BA in English, but not about my brother’s BSc in Biochemistry. Making a value judgment on which subjects are useful for New Zealand takes into account an underlying bias where ‘male’ subjects are considered more worthwhile.

A Government policy prioritising one degree over another shouldn’t cause thousands of university students to suffer from funding cuts. In my view, education is about learning rather than economic output, and the funding system should recognise the inherent value of educated citizens. We need to stop viewing education as a business and recognise that all study contributes to our society.

Young women who are passionate about the humanities should not feel that their degree is worth less to the country than those who enjoy science. All faculties should have a baseline of adequate funding to support the number of students and the resources required. Any further incentives for particular subjects should be additional to that funding requirement – that way we can fund STEM without taking away from other faculties. All education is valuable, but targeting funding at STEM without protecting the humanities suggests otherwise.

TAGGED IN

  • Education /
  • University /
  • Bias /
  • STEM /
  • Humanities /
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Erin
Gourley

Regular Contributor All Articles