Oh, the humanities!


Paul van Gerven is an editor at Bits&Chips.

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It’s more than a little awkward that here in the Netherlands, STEM and non-STEM scientists are pitted against each other over a couple of million euros. Meanwhile, our German neighbors will be increasing their public-research budget by three percent per year, every year, for the next decade. A fine example of divide and conquer by Education Secretary Van Engelshoven, one would think, except that the STEM sector has never seemed vocal or powerful enough to be of much use to her.

The liberal arts, humanities and medical sciences, on the other hand, took it to the streets. They take great offense at seeing their budgets getting cut, with the proceeds going to technical universities. It’s seen as a manifestation of widespread disdain for their fields, which are made to be less important than the natural and engineering sciences. The protests staged in Leiden at the opening of the academic year have been described as markedly ‘unacademic’, with toga-wearing participants yelling and booing and speakers calling for the Secretary’s resignation.

Of course, it hurts when something is taken from you, even more when that same thing is doled out to someone sitting right next to you. But are the arts and humanities indeed treated as second-rate sciences in the Netherlands?

Data from the Rathenau Institute suggests that’s not the case. The ‘soft sciences’, as well as the medical disciplines, are actually quite well-funded in the Netherlands. The share of the humanities (including social sciences) in the total public-research budget is 25.6 percent, above the average of 23.4 percent in thirteen peer countries. Only the Norwegian and UK governments are funding these disciplines significantly more generously.

The share that goes to engineering and natural sciences, on the other hand, is rather low: 39.7 percent compared to the average of 47.5 percent. Only two countries in the peer group funnel significantly less to STEM. Furthermore, analysis from the Rathenau shows that STEM funding in the Netherlands is proportional to the size of the manufacturing industry.

Crucially, however, the STEM share has been shrinking over the past decade, from 42.2 percent in 2007 to 39.7 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the shares of the humanities and particularly the medical disciplines have increased, while that of the social sciences has remained at the same level. Overall, STEM funding increased by 2.3 percent 2007-2016, humanities and social science funding by 4.4 percent (total public-research funding increased 3.1 percent over the period).

So, there really is no ground for the liberal arts and humanities to feel offended. In fact, a budget correction in favor of engineering and natural sciences seems overdue. After Van Engelshoven recoiled over the backlash, barely any money is actually being transferred anyway.

Looking at the bigger picture, favoring STEM is smart from an economic standpoint, as well. Graduates without an engineering or science degree are almost twice as likely to have difficulties finding a job after leaving university, according to the Research Centre for Education and the Labor Market (ROA). Most will eventually find their way to the labor market one way or another, but there’s a lot of waste of money and talent here. As recently highlighted by the WEF Global Competitiveness Report, the Dutch economy is blessed with a highly educated labor force but is burdened by a mismatch between what these people can do and what employers need.

Of course, we shouldn’t judge a discipline merely on its ability to produce graduates that can immediately find a job that matches their degree. Every discipline has intrinsic value. It’s just a matter of whether we should let everyone pick the education they want and pay for it too. Or whether we really need five different art history departments. Consolidating some disciplines into one or two universities and throttling the intake of students in line with the labor market is perfectly reasonable. And so is spending a little extra on STEM, if that’s what our society needs.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t go over so well.