The Scapegoating of Humanities and Social Sciences: A Convenient Cover-up?

by Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Sri Lanka, Prof. Sampath Amaratunge, is widely being quoted on social media these days as having said at a COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) meeting that there are no employment opportunities for as many as 70 percent of the Arts graduates (graduates produced in the fields of the humanities and social sciences) in the country. He is also quoted as having said that the under-employment of the Arts graduates is the sole reason behind the criticism that is out there against the entire university system in the country.

This statement by the current Chairman of the UGC, who interestingly happens to be someone from the social sciences, sums up a widespread attitude towards the humanities and social sciences and also university faculties which are associated with those disciplines. Such disciplines and faculties are often criticised for failing to produce graduates who are capable of making a positive and impactful contribution towards the workforce and national development.

The UGC Chairman’s latest statement indicates his assumption that the primary role of universities is to produce graduates who would fit the jobs that are supposedly out there. The Chairman is undoubtedly joined by many who share the same view. There is a widespread feeling in society that jobs are out there but the universities have failed to produce graduates who are worthy of those jobs. The problem, according to this perspective is primarily with universities, specifically with the faculties of humanities and social sciences. Now, some of us have argued that the humanities and social sciences as disciplines in the present-day university system not only in Sri Lanka but also elsewhere are in crisis, but the crisis that we have been worried about is quite different to the one that the UGC Chairman is talking about. (See Kuppi column “Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?” published on June 6, 2023, for more along this line.)

Let’s take a closer look at the key assumption behind the UGC Chairman’s statement. There is no question that people need jobs. Unemployment is a serious problem, and I believe that the government as the main state actor has a responsibility to ensure that there are employment opportunities and avenues for those who come into the workforce every year. And universities as a key part of the state structure have a responsibility to ensure that the graduates whom they produce can add value to the respective fields that they are in and productively contribute to the advancement of society. That said, as has been argued many times by many of us, universities are not factories that produce workers for predefined jobs. There are many professional degrees where there is a direct link between the training that the undergraduates get and the profession that they would go into upon graduation; nevertheless, to say that the primary responsibility of the universities is to produce graduates who fit predefined slots in society simply indicates a failure to recognise the role that the universities have historically been bestowed with and the purpose of higher education more broadly.

In an ideal setting, the goal of university education is to produce individuals who can think out of the box. It is precisely their ability to think out of the box in which ever the discipline they are in that makes them special. One could argue that that may be what makes them special but what good does it make if there are no jobs for them in society. This line of argument is not very different from the thinking behind the claim that the government cannot control inflation because the factors that determine inflation are beyond the government’s control. We don’t need a government to tell us that inflation is beyond their control. Similarly, we don’t need a government to tell us that there are no jobs out there for those who are coming out of universities. If there are no jobs available in society that is an indication of a broader structural problem in society. It is a failure of the government itself. Blaming it entirely on universities is not only to ignore what university education is primarily for but also to divert public attention from the real factors behind the absence of employment opportunities in society.

The degree programmes in the humanities and social sciences have been scapegoated for quite some time for the lack of employment of opportunities for the graduates in those fields, and the perceived failure of such programmes has been criticised in relation to the perceived success of the more technically oriented degree programmes. The humanities and social sciences degree programmes have been criticised for being irrelevant mainly in comparison to the relevance of the technically oriented degree programmes to the world of work. The unemployment or under-employment of the humanities and social sciences graduates has been discussed in relation to the higher rates of employment in technically oriented fields. Now, it is no secret that within the context of the present financial crisis in the country, there has been a clear decrease in the employment opportunities that are available for those coming out of technically oriented programmes. The simple question is whether that sudden decrease in employment opportunities render those technically oriented programmes irrelevant. If it does not then there is clearly a problem with the criticism against the humanities and social sciences programmes on the employment front.

One of the key attempts at addressing the employment related issues has been to push the humanities and social sciences programmes in the direction of incorporating technical know-how wherever possible, irrespective of whether such components complement the key focus of those programmes. The assumption appears to be that the disciplines in questions have nothing much to offer, and therefore the graduates of those programmes are not going to be employable, so let’s give them a little bit of IT and English wherever possible, and with that they’ll be able to find a job. As has been pointed out by many, not only do such moves violate the disciplines in question, they also result in completely blocking the unique ways in which those programmes contribute to the advancement of society.

Let us acknowledge that employment is a broader structural problem in society, which the universities cannot be held responsible for, or at least universities alone cannot be held responsible for. Let us remain mindful of the role that the universities have historically been bestowed with.