Humanities at University: ‘Alerting you to the complicated nature of problems’

Prof. Marc Williams was in New Delhi recently from UNSW, Sydney, Australia to meet with students interested in pursuing humanities subjects from the broad bouquet of degrees offered. He talks about the enduring popularity of Social Sciences and the growing importance of an Asia-Pacific focus

Q. Arts & Social Sciences is a significant department at the UNSW?

Yes, it’s part of the Faculty of Art & Social Sciences which is an important part of the University – both in terms of the research that we do, and grants we receive, as well as the impact that research has, and our training of youth on the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Q. What are some of the most popular courses?

Bachelor of Arts students go in for International Relations & Politics and Development Studies – those two are the most popular social science degrees, but outside of that we also offer some stand-alone degrees, like Social Research & Policy and students who are  interested perhaps in a career in civil services or perhaps in working for a major firm on its government relations or NGO’s – this degree provides them with tools of analysis particularly in policy making. At the undergrad level we also have a popular criminology & criminal justice course that students from around the world opt for.

 At the postgrad level there are a number of courses that are popular – our two media degrees, plus Development Studies, and International Relations. Also increasingly relevant is Environmental Management in trying to understand the contemporary world. In addition, there are the core social sciences and to some extent our degree in social work is also popular.

Many of my colleagues consult with government departments, both in Australia and around the world, on very crucial issues like our Centre for Gender Violence that we have on campus. Other colleagues have specific areas of expertise, like one who works on issues related to child poverty. These are very vibrant programs. 

Q. Are the courses more Asia-Pacific-centric in comparison with universities offering the same in the UK or North America?

Yes, in three ways: firstly, within degree programs, we have a significant number of programs that have a specific Asia and Asia-Pacific focus, and we also offer rigorous language courses in Chinese, Japanese and Korean that many of our students find extremely useful.

  Secondly, much of the research specialisation of our faculty relates to the area. To highlight a few of my colleagues: Professor Kama Maclean whose has researched and published extensively on Indian history;  Prof. Mina Roces, who is a very well known specialist on women in Asia; another colleague Associate Professor Fengshi Wu has an empirical focus on China and Asia and works closely with NGO’s and on environmental issues in China; then there is Dr. Alexander Korolev, who specialises in international security in Asia-Pacific, among others.

Thirdly, our students benefit greatly through interaction with the consultancy work undertaken by various departments in the Faculty. For instance, in China, our Social Policy Research Centre is engaged in distinct programs where Prof. Bingqin Li is exceedingly

well known for her connections with leading Chinese academicians and consultants.

Such contracted research work feeds back into teaching and provides scope for our students to work on India and China – two major regions in the region, as well as other countries, like Indonesia, Philippines, etc. that we have projects with.

Q. How do Humanities compare with STEM subjects for popularity with international students?

I think the Faculty of Arts & Sciences has always drawn international students because we are a very organic part of the University.

When one looks at UNSW, two things stand out – one is that it’s a comprehensive university – we have a large medical faculty, and very impressive science and engineering departments. For example, Prof. Michelle Simmons who was the 2018 Australian of the Year is one of the leading scientists in quantum computing in the world. But the University on the whole has many outstanding non-STEM faculties, eg. in Built Environment, Law and Art & Design. 

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences was established way back in 1960, just 11 years after the Uni was created, so we’ve had a long time to embed an outstanding tradition of teaching, research and community engagement, and we are not competing for resources at the University level.

UNSW is a research-intensive university that is number one in Australia across the board for attracting Government research grants.

Q. The numbers of international students heading to Australia in general, and UNSW in particular, seem to be growing?

Yes, but also among domestic students there are passionate young people who join UNSW, and there seems to be an internationalisation of interest and engagement – like we have just had 10 students from Australian universities participating in an India Immersion Program; these are young people really interested in the world, it reflects young people’s interest in the world, in international studies and international relations. 

And, in response to this understanding of the globalised world we introduced our new degree PPE program – Politics, Philosophy & Economics – last year we had about 34 students and this year we expect to have around 100. 

I think that’s a testament to the interest in a degree program that alerts you to the complicated nature of the many problems we face – they don’t have to be wicked problems but ones that recognise that economics alone is not going to enable solutions, that economic decisions take place in a political context and there are also ethical issues around investment issues, for example. PPE has seen tremendous growth and I think will continue to be an important degree for us as it is in many other parts of world as it recognises the intersectionalities of issues.

Q. What are international internship and work opportunities for students at the UNSW Arts & Social Sciences faculty?

The University offers exchange experiences with institutions across Asia, UK, Europe, Americas and Africa, which most students find fun and exciting.

There are plenty of opportunities to get work experience domestically in Australia to enhance students work experience and lifestyle skills. We have an inbuilt internship within the faculty that students can access and get work-place experience. All students on our education and social work degrees must undertake workplace placements.

Another way we provide support is through a UG career mentoring scheme where current students are paired with alumni. This is available in Sydney and we are expanding this to other regions and countries too.

I should mention that most of these internships are for credit so they do not extend students’ degree programs. We also offer flexibility in the way that if a student sources their own internship, we develop an assessment program around that so they will get credit, a practical example is one of our students from Sri Lanka who got an internship with the Sri Lankan Permanent Mission to the UN office in New York, and was able to gain credits for that experience.

Q. You also attract a lot of mid-career professionals ……

Yes, absolutely – our Masters programs have two-thirds mid-career students. Much of this is about switching careers or getting expertise to proceed higher in their job, for example, we had an Indian national whose first degree in Mumbai was communications and he was working in the field; he studied International Relations with us and now he is with the UN public affairs department – so, he combined his skills. So, many mature students join international or environmental programs that helps them get ahead.

Prof. Marc Williams is Associate Dean, International, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Arts & Social Sciences, as well as Professor of International Relations researching and teaching topics such as the politics of international economic organizations; global climate politics; civil society and global governance; developing countries and world politics