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The future for humanities in universities - what's next?

30 November 2023
CHASS panel addresses the future
Delegates from the Congress of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences 2023 - hosted by the University of Sydney - discuss the future of humanities' disciplines in universities in Australia and around the world.

On Day One of CHASS 2023, delegates gathered in the Wallace Theatre for the Shared Plenary Panel: The Future of HASS in the University on Monday night. In the context of the Universities Accord process, the panel featured a facilitated discussion with distinguished panellists reflecting on the state of HASS in the University sector, including its reputation with students, employers, and the wider community.

Moderated by Higher Education journalist Luke Slattery, Professor Lisa Adkins, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, was in discussion with:

  • Professor Frank Bongiorno (Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and Professor of History ANU)
  • Dr Rhonda Itaoui (Centre for Western Sydney, Western Sydney University)
  • Gabriel Miller (President and Chief Executive Officer, Federation for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Canada)

Professor Adkins said she was optimistic about the future of HASS disciplines in Australia. “Firstly, I’m optimistic about the Accord and all that it promises including explicitly re-establishing the links between tertiary education and national futures. This is undeniably a good thing for the HASS disciplines, given the role HASS can play, and has played historically, in terms of nation shaping, whether that be through policy design, the shaping of cultural institutions, or contributions to public health, for example, understanding the social dimensions of HIV/AIDS.

“Secondly, as the world becomes more complex, uncertain, and unstable, the relevance of the HASS disciplines increases. If we think about current societal challenges, such as the challenges of AI, global conflicts, increasing inequalities or new and emergent health challenges, these are all undeniably HASS problems.

woman in a grey coloured suit speaking with a microphone

Professor Lisa Adkins

“Advanced computation and AI for example, provoke questions around what it means to be human: a question that the humanities, arts and social sciences disciplines are best positioned to contribute to,” Professor Adkins said. “Addressing these questions and problems well, is seeing a revitalisation of the HASS disciplines especially when it comes to new forms of collaboration across disciplines.”

Professor Adkins said questions around AI and inequalities are being addressed by FASS academics in collaboration with Engineering and Science colleagues. “This kind of transdisciplinary collaboration is a further reason for optimism,” she said.

“Thirty years ago, if HASS was involved in engineering or science projects it was often as an add on to projects examining the social impacts of whatever phenomenon was being investigated. Now, there is deep collaboration right from the very start within projects, for instance in the codesign of research questions.

“To do these kinds of collaboration well there needs to be bit a of letting go, for instance, of the boundaries of disciplines and the conventions that might define them. But to my mind this is the key to powerful transdisciplinary enterprise and to the renewal of disciplines themselves.”

Natural science compared to social sciences

a woman in a grey suit, seated, and a man in a grey suit speaking with a microphone

Professor Lisa Adkins and Professor Frank Bongiorno

Professor Frank Bongiorno, an historian at ANU and the incoming president of CHASS, said the natural sciences have been very successful at advocating for their disciplines, including more funding, staff, buildings and positions such as a Chief Scientist. “Imagine if we had a Chief Social Scientist?” he said.

“I think we have good stories to tell about employability but also our place in the community,” he said. “There is a whole eco-system of community groups that are fundamentally dependent on the humanities and social science for content, for insights, for stories, for things that make life interesting and worth living. I believe we need to be more embedded in the community for life-long learning.”

Dr Rhonda Itaoui, from the Centre for Western Sydney at the Western Sydney University, agreed, adding that it’s important for the humanities to: “eliminate the barriers to knowledge for the communities we work with, to value their knowledge and give back rather than extract, and to shift from citation impact to social impact.”  

Challenges and opportunities

a woman in black dress seated next to a man in grey suit who is holding a microphone

Dr Rhonda Itaoui and Mr Gabriel Miller

Mr Gabriel Miller, President and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada, said after the global financial crisis in 2008, enrolments in the humanities began to decline. “It was a huge expression of anxiety and uncertainty among students and their families,” he said. “We have to grapple with how we reassure people and give them permission to follow the discipline and studies that they are most passionate about.”

He said he does not believe humanities are in crisis but scholarly work still needs advocates. “It’s important for humanities to advocate for the university as a whole and not to pit ourselves against STEM. That has served us well in Canada.

“In humanities, we need to embrace the big picture sense-making role of our disciplines, this is one advantage we have over the sciences - we seem to have entered a place where science makes the world more complicated and not less -   and we need to avoid hyper-specialisation so that we are able to help people put the pieces together,” Mr Miller said.

“It is also a moment to re-embrace the university commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom,” he said. “There is no way to protect universities from bad press. There is no other institution in the world where people can speak freely about their own organisation. It comes at a cost. You just need to lean into it. That’s what it takes to have a great university, a great country and a great world.”

The value of HASS

In terms of deep value, Professor Adkins said one of the key areas for HASS, in the context of broad political tussles over truth, is “trust and integrity around evidence and knowledge”. “The HASS disciplines are uniquely placed to provide evidenced- based explanations of the present’s relationship to the past and to possible future states,” she said. “This is critical. For the current Middle East situation, for example, the HASS disciplines can help us understand how we arrived at the present and what future pathways might be imaginable and possible.”

The Congress of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences was hosted by University of Sydney in 2023. Top photo: Dr Rhonda Itaoui, Professor Frank Bongiorno, Professor Lisa Adkins and Mr Gabriel Miller. 

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