After Decades of Neglect, Academics Hope New Plan Will Bail Out Israel's Humanities

'Humanities graduates can contribute to business administration, high-tech and public policy, too. It’s important to bring people from the humanities into these fields as well.'

Israeli students protesting cuts in humanities budgets.
Emil Salman

Israeli students with a university degree in the humanities have slim chances of joining the workforce in a job related to their field of study, and are often forced to suffice with a low salary, in contrast to graduates with bachelor's degrees in most other fields, according to a new study.

The Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem conducted the research on behalf of the Council for Higher Education’s planning and budgeting committee. The findings are to be presented on Thursday at a conference the council will hold at Van Leer.

The study was commissioned as part of an attempt by the CHE to promote the study of the humanities, whose status has declined in the education system in general, and in institutions of higher learning in particular. This is not the first attempt to revive interest in the humanities and to improve the lot of people who have degrees in them.

Over the last two decades, there has been a 62-percent drop in the proportion of students pursuing a B.A. in humanities subjects such as linguistics, literature, philosophy, art and history – from 18.5 percent of all students in 1997 to 6.9 percent in 2015.

Another statistic from the report that completes an unflattering picture of these branches of learning is that between 1996 and 2014, the number of Israeli high-school students taking the highest-level matriculation exams in literature and history dropped by 45 percent. In contrast, there was a 23 percent increase in students taking a matriculation exam in Bible studies.

The researchers – Dr. Yochi Fischer and Dr. Adam Klin-Oron – also examined the status of various fields within the humanities from the standpoint of the employment of B.A. graduates. They based their conclusions on the latest available data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, focusing on academics who graduated between 2004 and 2006, and following them for up to four years after they finished their degree.

While the statistics are a bit dated, they reflect an ongoing trend in the humanities, which does not seem to have changed in recent years. It emerges from the report that the employment rate of students with a B.A. in these fields, who completed their studies in 2004, was a little lower than the employment rate of cohorts from other fields in 2008 (87 percent). The employment rate of individuals with bachelor's degrees in linguistics was particularly low (80 percent), and topped by graduates in Jewish studies (87 percent) and Bible studies (91 percent).

Another problem raised in the CHE report is that almost half of all B.A. graduates in the humanities do not work in a field directly related to their major. In 2008, one-third of these graduates – who were then employed in their fourth year after joining the labor force – were working in education or academia.

Only 55 percent of humanities graduates in 2008 said they were working in a field related to their studies four years after completing their degree. That rate is similar to social science graduates (54 percent), and a little higher than engineering and architecture graduates (51 percent). In the rest of the major fields of study, the chance of working in a field related to one’s studies was significantly higher – for example, 70 percent of business administration graduates and 77 percent of graduates in law were working in their fields.

Promoting the study of humanities in institutions of higher learning and high schools is one of the aims of a new five-year plan being drawn up by the CHE, said Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, chairwoman of its planning and budgeting committee, and to that end a team is working on introducing studies in digital formats, offering enrichment programs and encouraging publications in the relevant fields.

“We are talking about an investment of resources for developing the humanities fields, which constitute a fundamental layer in the establishment of Israeli society," Zilbershats added.

She also said the plan involves encouraging the Education Ministry and the Culture Ministry to “strengthen humanities studies in high schools and to augment their influence outside academia, as well as in cultural realms, and to advance employment of humanities graduates in the business world.”

Not measured in money

For their part, Van Leer researchers Fischer and Klin-Oron stress that in Israel the situation is totally different in the United States: Only 13 percent of American humanities graduates work in an educational environment, but their integration into other fields of employment is much more significant than in Israel.

“When we examined the situation of academics in the humanities in the United States, we saw that the distribution in employment fields is much broader. They work in many professions – including industry and business. In Israel, the main field of work for humanities graduates is teaching, while in the United States humanities studies are the basis for many types of employment,” said Klin-Oron.

“We think that it is important for there to be more humanities graduates in Israel,” he added. “There are things you don’t measure in money. Through these studies, individuals develop means for critical thinking, creativity and the ability to examine data in depth. Humanities graduates can work in any field, and it would be a mistake to assume that you have to recruit for a certain field only people who studied it. Humanities graduates can contribute to business administration, high-tech and public policy, too. It’s important to bring people from the humanities into these fields as well.”

The researchers found that the income of Israeli humanities graduates was significantly lower compared to the income level of B.A. graduates from other fields. Only education graduates earned less. The average gross monthly salary of people with a B.A. in humanities, in 2005, four years after they graduated, was 6,775 shekels ($1,734). In comparison, their peers in other fields averaged 8,800 shekels, with business administration graduates averaging 11,200 shekels. The highest salary was among mathematics, statistics, engineering and architecture graduates, who average 14,000-15,000 shekels per month.

Moreover, there are gaps between individuals with degrees in different fields in the humanities. The CHE report showed that graduates of Land of Israel studies, philosophy and Islamic history earned 7,000-7,500 shekels per month, whereas – also in the fourth year after finishing their B.A. degrees – people who majored in literature had much lower wages (5,200 shekels), as did students of Bible (5,800) and linguistics (5,700).

Another conclusion of the study was that the wages of female humanities graduates were significantly lower than those of male graduates. Four years after getting their B.A. degree in one of these fields, there was a gap in wages of men vis-a-vis women of 61 percent – among the highest, as compared to other popular academic disciplines. The only fields with a larger gap were engineering and architecture (79 percent).

The Van Leer researchers also found that the proportion of people with a B.A. in humanities who are employed by temporary contracts is 28 percent – the highest rate of PhDs in any field examined. In addition, only 52 percent of PhDs in the humanities said they integrated research into their work, also the lowest rate among all the fields studied.

According to the findings, it seems that many individuals with a PhD in a field in the humanities engage in teaching – whether at colleges and universities or the school system.