Industry: ‘No need for more graduates in the humanities’

There is no need for more graduates in the humanities in Denmark, according to Mette Fjord Sørensen, head of research, higher education and diversity at the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI).

“The humanities are experiencing the lowest number of applicants in 10 years. We fully support the reduction [in intake, as] we still see too many humanities graduates trying to get into the workforce,” Fjord Sørensen told Magisterbladet on 17 October.

She said this particularly applies to graduates in drama, art history and literature, “where there is a high level of unemployment”.

On the other hand, she said falling numbers of students taking French and German were a matter of concern.

“We are worried about the recruitment to languages,” she said.

Fjord Sørensen stressed that DI is not attacking the humanities but pointing out the mismatch between the number of humanities graduates and the needs of the economy.

“Universities did not demonstrate responsibility towards society before they found a pistol pointing towards their heads because they accepted students [to the humanities] who were not in demand in the workforce,” Fjord Sørensen argued.

“We should increase the intake in languages. But we do not need more graduates in the humanities. The supply of candidates has been too large.”

She said although DI was pushing for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) recruitment to Danish universities, it does value the competencies in the humanities.

“For businesses and technology development it is important that the next generation of humanities graduates should have a better understanding of digital competence, because they sometimes are going to serve as bridge-builders between the users and those developing the new technology. But this is dealing with what we bring into the higher education degrees, and not that we need more humanities scholars.”

Languages problem

Dr Robert Phillipson, professor emeritus in languages at the Copenhagen Business School, told University World News: “DI has never put resources into foreign languages. There have been several official reports over the past 15 years but pathetically little action.”

He said the strategy developed two years ago consists of a modest effort to strengthen foreign languages in schools but totally ignores what could be done in higher education.

“Several colleagues and I have articulated the need for action for 20 years, and have been ignored. Failing to graduate highly qualified people with competence in languages other than English is not only a problem for business, but also for Danish in the European Union, well qualified Eurocrats and translators and interpreters.

“It is also a serious problem for cultural understanding of all neighbouring countries and EU member states. Danish civil servants and politicians are under-qualified for collaborating with other EU countries in the complex EU system if everything is filtered through English – often pretty uninspired English.”

Importance of the humanities

Hanne Leth Andersen, rector at Roskilde University, challenged the notion that it had been necessary to force universities to reduce their intake of humanities candidates.

“A general shift in the opinion on the need for graduates in the humanities happened in the wake of the financial crisis. Around 2013 this not only took place in parliament but in society at large and also at universities.”

She said after four years of cutbacks, Danish universities have reduced the intake of humanities students by 23%. “We have now reached the pain threshold. If we cut more, we are weakening too much those humanistic milieus that are receiving a major part of their funding from how many students are graduating.

“Beyond this, there is a great need for candidates in the humanities if we are to behave in a wise and nuanced way towards the great challenges of the future, such as artificial intelligence, global inequality, conflicts and climate change.”

Professor Sverker Sörlin of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, which is running three advanced European Research Council projects in the humanities, told University World News: “DI’s reaction is uninformed and irresponsible.”

He said DI should take a look at the Humanomics research centre in Denmark and its website, which publishes solid data on the importance of the humanities in Denmark.

He said DI should be wary of the risk of eradicating something that has been a strong area of Danish research, earning respect in many parts of Europe and the world, and which has “helped Denmark become a modern open welfare society”.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and former rector at the University of Oslo in Norway from 2009-17, told University World News this was an important area of discussion, but there are several elements that are often not mentioned.

“We have had this discussion in Norway where NHO [the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, an employers’ organisation with 25,600 member companies] has claimed that Norwegian students do not select the ‘correct’ higher education, since the greatest growth in higher education has been in the humanities and the social sciences at the expense of engineering and the natural sciences.

“I have argued that Google and other high technology companies are totally dependent on graduates in the humanities and the social sciences today.

“The debate suffers from an unfortunate dichotomy: talking about technology on the one side and the humanities on the other. The reality is that Snow’s two cultures* are totally interwoven in today’s workforce.

“Indeed, the high technology companies are in need of more graduates from the humanities and philosophers to handle the largest challenges facing societies today, including fake news, disinformation and others. Also, social media is a new reality that has to be interpreted through the eyes of people trained in the humanities."

*The Two Cultures is the first part of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist CP Snow. Its thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society” was split into two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – which was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.