Tag Archives: Markku Filppula

The Decline or Rise of the Humanities?

Recent reports on Finnish universities’ plans to cut humanities degree programmes have aroused fears that the humanities as a whole are in a state of a free fall. What has been of particular concern for many is the allegedly rushed, undemocratic, and almost random manner in which decisions on these cuts are now being carried out. Or rather, are said to be carried out as, in fact, at the time of writing this blog hardly any such decisions have yet been taken by those universities that have so far been mentioned in this context, including UEF. Yet it should be evident to all who have followed the discussions on universities’ structural reforms over the last couple of years that some changes are under way in the humanities just as well as in several other fields of study. Since this topic is likely to occupy front-page headlines in both national and local news media for some time to come, it is worthwhile having a look at the reasons behind these developments.

One is the diminishing demand for labour in some areas of the humanities. Teachers of most foreign languages except English are one example. This is a reflection of the rapidly declining numbers of school-students opting for these subjects in school, not to mention those of school-students choosing them as one of the subjects for their Matriculation Exams. For example, the number of pupils taking the exam in German Language (Advanced and Short courses combined) dropped from 6,038 in the year 2007 to 2,296 in 2015, so down to about one third in less than a decade. The figures for French Language reveal a more or less similar development. What is worse, this downward trend is set to continue unless some drastic steps are taken especially in areas outside the major cities to enable and encourage school-students to pick up German or French as one of their subjects. Now almost half of the examinees in these subjects come from Helsinki and the province of Uusimaa. In the light of these statistics it is not surprising that the numbers of applicants wanting to study these subjects at university are declining. The reality is that universities now find themselves struggling to fill their student quotas in some of these subjects, which forces them to make adjustments to their study programmes.

Apart from language subjects, some other arts and humanities subjects have also witnessed a decline in numbers of applicants but so have some of the sciences as well. Yet the pressure for cuts appears to have been much greater on humanities programmes than those in other fields. This is then easily interpreted as showing that the humanities are in a “crisis”, as has been done in some recent newspaper reports on higher education. What seems to support this is the reportedly similar situation in many other countries if not worldwide even. You only need to google “humanities cutbacks” and several hits come up referring to cutbacks in humanities programmes in Norway, Germany, the UK, Israel, Japan, and the US, to list but a few. More often than not, these measures are accompanied by curtailment of funding for those programmes that have remained.

Are the humanities then doomed to be wiped out altogether? The true picture may, after all, be less negative than it seems at first glance. I recently came across an essay entitled “The Rise of the Humanities” by Peter Mandler, Professor of Cultural History at Cambridge University (available at https://aeon.co/essays/the-humanities-are-booming-only-the-professors-can-t-see-it ). In this essay he analyses the situation in the humanities especially with respect to student enrollment numbers in the UK, US, and Australia. Mandler notes, first, that the talk of a crisis in the humanities has become so customary, an “orthodoxy”, to use his expression, that few have bothered to find out if there is real evidence to back up such rhetoric. Mandler himself has conducted a longitudinal study of the enrollments in humanities in the English-speaking world for over the last half-century. His results show that there has been hardly any change in the proportion of students studying humanities within that period. Indeed, in absolute numbers and despite fluctuations over the years, there are now more humanities students in the English-speaking world than ever before. In the US, as Mandler writes, the proportion of humanities degrees has remained stable at 10-12 per cent of all degrees ever since the 1950s. The only major change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s at the time which saw a significant influx of women into higher education. In the subsequent decades the situation changed only in that women turned in increasing numbers to more “professional” fields of study such as business, journalism, communication studies, and social work, while men continued to maintain their interest in humanities at the same level as before. Mandler’s conclusion, therefore, is that there is no real basis for the talk of a crisis, and that the humanities have proved resilient enough even in the face of tough competition from other, seemingly more attractive and financially more tempting, fields of study. That in itself shows that the humanities continue to be capable of serving important cultural and societal needs in the rapidly changing world.

Turning back to the current situation in Finland, the need for changes and possible cutbacks in the universities’ offering of courses in the humanities should be assessed against their wider background, and the consequences of any drastic changes should be carefully analysed before implementing them. Needless to say, rushed decisions and measures on the part of universities and other policy-makers can be irreversible and carry the risk of destroying something that will cause permanent damage to some areas of scholarship. Even those areas that at first glance look too small to be viable may play an important role as part of a larger and meaningful field of research or study programme. As for humanists themselves, rather than surrendering to the rhetoric of “crisis”, they should find ways of renewing their disciplines, by seeking points of connection and concrete forms of collaboration with other disciplines and study programmes – something that they have already begun doing and should continue to do.

filppulaMarkku Filppula
dean, Philosophical Faculty

Waging war on science publishers

While universities and scientists in Finland and many other countries are struggling with increased cutbacks in their funding, they are faced with similar challenges in making the results of their research known to the academic community and the wider public. Electronic publishing was at one time expected to gradually work towards lower subscription prices for scientific journals, but nothing of the kind has happened. On the contrary, most publishers have put up their prices both for printed books or journals and electronic publications at levels that have forced university libraries to reduce the number of journals they can afford to subscribe to. Neither has this development helped individual scholars who cannot possibly keep up with the recent rise in subscription fees or book prices.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog about the open access movement that had been formed by some language scientists at the Freie Universität, Berlin and at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. By now, this movement has grown world-wide, with over 550 linguists around the world signing to the so-called Berlin Declaration, which calls for an alternative low-cost and open-access publication forum, independent from commercial publishers. Similar open-access channels have been set up by scientists in several other disciplines, including natural and health sciences, where the publishing houses have their biggest markets.

A recent issue of The University World News (15 Nov) reports on a ‘mass exodus’ of the whole team of editors and the editorial board of the prestigious journal Lingua, which was founded in 1947 by North Holland but was in the 1990s taken over by Elsevier. The journal’s editors sent to Elsevier a ‘re-negotiation letter’ in which they demanded that all articles published in Lingua be made open access. Also, the publication fees should be lowered to around US$430, and the authors should be allowed to retain copyright on their articles. Apparently, the negotiations between the resigned editorial team and Elsevier have failed, and the editors are now said to be setting up a new journal, which would be based on the principle of open access.

In Finnish academia, too, scholars have become increasingly concerned about the rising cost of publishing and the whole commercial culture surrounding it. In his column in Helsingin Sanomat (9 Nov), Dr Janne Saarikivi called on Finnish universities to distance themselves from commercial publishers rather than encourage their scientists to place their research articles in ‘top publications’, many of which have been in the forefront of making money with science publishing. Future publishing, according to Saarikivi, takes largely place in completely different forums such as Facebook or even Wikipedia.

Changes are clearly under way in the field of publishing these days, and it remains to be seen how and to what extent commercial publishers will react to the type of protests on the part of the academic community I have described above. Should academic institutions such as universities and their international organisations join the movement for low-cost open access publication, prospects of change would be greatly improved. In the meantime, we just have to keep up the fight as best we can and try to cope with the rising cost of publishing.

Markku Filppula
dean, Philosophical Faculty