Graduate education in the humanities in Canada should be tailored to the needs of students and society


Freshly graduated people in black academy robes throw hats in the air

The link between a liberal arts degree and a professional career is weak. (Pexels photo)

The federal government's recent announcement to increase scholarships for doctoral and postdoctoral students is welcome. But money alone will not solve the challenges facing higher education in Canada. This is particularly true for higher education in the social sciences and humanities.

The link between humanities degrees and careers is weak. Many humanities PhD students aspire to professorships, but in Canada there are far more PhD students than available academic positions. Although professional (course-based) master's degrees tend to be very career-oriented, many graduates of research-oriented Master of Arts (MA) degrees report difficulty launching careers.

In our new book For the common good: redesigning arts graduate programs at Canadian universitieswe present a vision for humanities degrees that links them to Canada's common good challenges, such as political polarization, income inequality, and Indigenous reconciliation.

We believe that degree programs must be consciously redesigned to meet the real needs of students and society. Students' talents must be promoted efficiently and integratively and comprehensively linked to important public goods.

“What can you do with it?”

While students continue to pursue and enjoy further study in the social sciences and humanities, the question “What can you do with it?” resonates far too strongly.

Many students are unhappy themselves. The length of study in the humanities is longer and the dropout rates are much higher than in STEM courses. The stress factors for students are enormous and poor mental health contributes to them deciding to drop out of their studies.

For a long time, a bachelor’s degree in the humanities was considered “education for life.” But master’s students are getting older and practical concerns are taking priority.

And since many PhD students receive government funding (in the form of scholarships and teaching or research assistantships) for their studies, graduate education is also receiving far more government funding. It is questionable whether this is a sensible use of the funds when many students appear to have little prospect of finding a job.

No question of cutting and shortening

Some argue for a simple solution: to cut and eliminate these “impractical” degrees. But as political scientists and academics, we know that Canada needs the arts, with their insights into human behavior and thought, more than ever. We advocate for a redesign of arts graduate programs to align them with Canada's most pressing public concerns.

Canada's toughest problems cannot be solved by science or technology alone. Their limitations become clear when we grapple with the ethics of AI and the complex human aspects of seemingly “scientific” problems, such as why some people don't get vaccinated.

Canada needs a different kind of higher education in the liberal arts than what is currently offered. As experienced administrators who have ourselves held leadership positions in universities, we know that the system is currently not working.

Irregular development of graduate education

Canadian graduate education in the humanities has developed erratically rather than strategically. The system is distorted by inadequate funding models that provide little guidance to students and give universities incentives to pursue quantity rather than quality.

Supervision models vary greatly between disciplines. In most STEM subjects, doctoral students work in teams on joint projects in laboratories led by lecturers.

In the humanities and most social sciences, PhD students work almost entirely independently. (In the fine arts, such as theater and music, collaboration is more prevalent, but that is not our focus here.) While this offers students maximum freedom, it can also lead them down dead ends.

Funding agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council place emphasis on training researchers to produce “highly qualified staff”, yet many graduate programmes in the humanities have not yet done enough to help students translate their graduate training into meaningful careers.

Students must now fight

The training that humanities scholars receive is closely linked to their academic career skills. In fact, humanities scholars are better trained than ever for academic research jobs. Yet there are few openings. Humanities scholars then struggle to articulate how these academic career skills are transferable to other sectors.

We call for a greater emphasis in the humanities on what linguist and university president Joseph Aoun calls “human literacy” – the ability to engage others and think creatively about human relationships. Students also need technological and data literacy: an understanding of how things work and how to analyze large amounts of information.

While the “digital humanities” have taken up aspects of this issue, we call for a more comprehensive and systematic approach. This does not mean turning sociologists into software engineers. But it does mean developing advanced skills to interpret data and its human impact in ways that are useful beyond academia.

Theoretical, curiosity-based research in the humanities remains highly valued. After all, students choose research degrees over professional training programs precisely because they are looking for intellectual challenge and discovery, not just professional training. Yet there could be closer connections between this theoretical, curiosity-based research, students' employment or career needs, and the needs of the community.

Reorientation of financing required

Achieving this goal requires efforts at all levels, inside and outside universities, and a reorientation of the mechanisms, particularly funding, on which the system is built.

Faculties and departments must move away from the “science first” mentality in their program goals. Universities must find ways to put quality before quantity, rather than the other way around.

Governments and funding bodies need to move to funding models that are appropriate for the arts, rather than borrowing from STEM disciplines. They need to support talent development with a focus on the common good. Employers need to be open to the important “soft skills” that arts graduates bring, rather than hiring solely for technical “hard skills”.

This is not a quick fix. Changing the status quo of higher arts education will require innovation and imagination. But universities and policymakers have the opportunity to take the first steps.The conversationThe conversation

Jonathan Malloy, Professor of Political Science, Carleton University; Lisa Young, Professor of Political Science, University of Calgaryand Loleen Berdahl, executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Saskatchewan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.