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NZ university deans discuss state of the arts

NZ university deans discuss state of the arts

The teaching of languages, the profile and suitability of the Bachelor of Arts degree, and government policies that might impact on humanities and social science disciplines were among topics canvassed by academic leaders in the arts at the Manawatū campus last week.

New Zealand members of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DASSH) met at Massey University on the 29 and 30 June. They were joined, for the first time, by the deans or heads of Māori Studies units from around the country.

Among the speakers was Professor Jan Thomas, Massey University’s Vice-Chancellor, who talked about the value of arts, humanities and social sciences not only to the modern university but also to contemporary society. She observed that a particular opportunity was provided when the humanities and social sciences work alongside other science areas.

She said amid the threat to many livelihoods through job losses from digitisation and automation it is “becoming increasingly apparent that humanities and social sciences produce an understanding of the world that is essential to combat the fear and the insecurity that leads to prejudice, isolationism, nationalism, and religious and political zealotry.

“Disaffected people, whose economic means have disappeared along with their jobs and social wellbeing, are those most likely to embrace the empty slogans and the fake news,” she told the group.

“How do we counter that? One of the things Massey University has done is restructure its Bachelor of Arts degree. It now has new core papers on culture, identity and citizenship, designed to help prepare graduates for a changing world of work.

“The refreshed degree, offered from semester one last year, was introduced after extensive research and input from employers, businesses and former students. As my colleague Professor Richard Shaw, who led the re-fresh, says: Whether you have a Massey BA majoring in politics, linguistics, philosophy, history, psychology or sociology – you will be versed in critical, analytical methods and with a highly-developed sense of empathy, creativity, curiosity and ethics. These may be called “soft skills” but they are essentially lifelong skills applicable to many jobs and roles in life, especially in leadership.”

The Deans also heard from Professor Sue Dodds (University of New South Wales) who is the Australasian President of DASSH. As well as an offer to help New Zealand Deans advocate for their disciplines, Professor Dodds commented on the challenges faced by Australian universities after the 2017 budget announcements.


The heads of Māori academic units agreed to continue meeting through the DASSH network. Professor Meihana Durie, (Rangitāne, Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou, Rongo Whakaata, Ngāi Tahu), who heads Massey’s Māori Studies unit Te Pūtahi-ā-Toi (School of Māori Art, Knowledge and Education), spoke on behalf of his four colleagues, noting that the teaching of Māori Studies is experiencing a number of changes, some positive, some more challenging.

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