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Humanising our future: Why Australia can’t afford to neglect the humanities

In an age where science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines receive the lion’s share of policy attention and funding, you can understand how those in the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) feel a bit miffed. Despite cultural and creative activity accounting for 6.4 per cent or $111.7 billion of Australia’s GDP in 2016-17, the sector has been besieged by funding cuts and a general lack of acknowledgement from government.

Last year, for instance, $4.2 million was stripped from humanities applicants to the Australian Research Council (ARC). Indeed, grants for creative art, writing, history and archaeology dropped a marked 62 per cent and 44 per cent respectively. With the OECD finding that Australia’s innovation skills are wanting, and that the government needs to broaden “the scope of subsidies for innovation-related subjects beyond STEM”, the national body for the humanities believes Australia is “at the crossroads”.

Early this month, the Australian Academy of the Humanities released an eight-point plan to address this situation. It sees the humanities as not only a custodian of a country’s cultural literacy (the assumed knowledge one needs to engage successfully in a culture), but the provider of the “foundational skills of a competent and agile workforce – problem solving, adaptability and creativity, critical thinking, ethical judgement and the ability to appreciate multiple points of view”.

In broad strokes, the plan urges the next government to discard the 'silo' approach that has demarcated STEM from HASS in policy-making. It also calls for funding levels to be restored, super-charged infrastructure investment, a renewed focus on language education and more industry development programs in the creative, cultural and digital sectors.

In a globalised world, the importance of cultural literacy is urgent: as more of us seek careers in far-flung countries and greater numbers of migrants join our workforce, our ability to navigate cultural differences in language, world views and cultural practices cannot be understated.

The Academy also believes the humanities are integral in developing “a human-centred approach to policy-making”; one “informed by ethical, historical, creative and cultural expertise”. It is urging the next Australian government to drastically reconsider the importance of HASS and adopt the eight-point plan.

The Academy’s president, Professor Joy Damousi, believes the current crisis in the humanities stems from “disinvestment over a considerable amount of time”. She says that the knowledge and skills HASS graduates bring to the workforce are typically overlooked. She also argues that funding decisions appear to have been hijacked by a “short-termism” that threaten the cultural, social and economic future of Australia.

Professor Damousi spoke to Campus Review about the languishing state of humanities funding in Australia.

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