Again we read of deep cuts to a Faculty of Humanities, this time at La Trobe University. And again we read (Ken Gelder, in The Age yesterday) that the university does not sufficiently value the humanities, does not understand their worth, cannot comprehend why a large number of smaller subjects is better than a smaller number with large enrolments.
There is another way to see what is happening at places like La Trobe. Some startling enrolment figures came my way recently. They show that two out of every three students of the humanities here in Victoria are enrolled at Melbourne University. The other third is distributed amongst six other universities.
The cut-off ATAR score for Melbourne’s Arts Faculty is over 90. It follows that two thirds of the arts/humanities students in Victoria’s universities are drawn from the top 10% of the academic cohort. The old conception of an arts degree as a last resort for those who can’t get into more desirable courses is clearly false: it is now becoming a degree for the (academic) elite.
There are of course arts/humanities courses available with much lower, with very low ATAR scores. These are concentrated in the three smaller and more recently-created universities, but the numbers enrolled are so small that their disappearance would make little difference to the wider picture. A graph of student enrolments against entrance scores would no longer be anything like a normal curve; instead it would climb steeply, skewed towards the higher scores.
Startling, I said, and startled I remain. There are various explanations for the very large numbers at Melbourne, amongst them the new ‘Melbourne’ model whereby everyone must take one of six undergraduate degrees before taking up a professional course. So amongst these high-fliers some will take up law, for example. It is not as if we shall have a flood of unemployed university wits on our hands, as in the late 16th century. (Many of them went into the theatre . . . ) But how many, I wonder, will take up teaching, where the entrance scores are too low for comfort?