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June 30, 2020

The ‘Job-Irrelevant’ Humanities: Why Arts Degrees are More Important than Ever

On June 19, Australia’s education minister, Dan Tehan, announced that university fees are to be overhauled in an effort to address rising unemployment and skill shortages.

While many are delighted by the reduction of fees for courses such as nursing, teaching, languages, and science, the announcement has sparked outrage as fees for humanities courses are set to increase by 113%. Designed to funnel students into fields that Tehan described as ‘job-relevant’, this short-sighted reform highlights the Federal Government’s dismissive attitude towards the humanities – one that is both damaging and entirely misplaced. First of all, the admittedly common belief that the humanities are not ‘job-relevant’ is actually easily disproved: according to the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching Graduate Outcome Survey, graduates of the humanities actually yield higher rates of employment in the first for months following graduation than graduates in the sciences, maths, or computing. Moreover, despite the 62% decrease in fees for agriculture, employment in this industry is projected to fall by May 2023, while the top five industry destinations for humanities are all projected to grow. It’s also worth noting that many of our politicians, including Education Minister Dan Tehan, hold degrees in the humanities, indicating at the very least that graduates in this field are, in fact, employable. But it’s more important to me to discuss the value of the humanities past job prospects because, while it’s a definite myth that graduates of the arts face perpetual unemployment, focusing on this aspect honestly misses the point.

Universities are not job factories” is a common and entirely accurate refrain right now, but it’s more important than ever to recognise that the disciplines in the arts are valuable in their own right. The Bachelor of Arts is one of the most diverse degrees, encompassing such wide-ranging majors as history, philosophy, linguistics, economics, literature, criminology, psychology, geography, Indigenous studies, politics, and many more – all of which are important to our society and culture in ways more than simply bolstering the job market. In addition to the concrete knowledge relating to each individual major, arts degrees are also renowned for the soft skills they instil in students, from critical thinking to communication skills and writing skills to empathy. The skills learned and honed in arts degrees are not only highly valued by any employer, but also incredibly important for life in general: in a time when the world is being rocked by the Black Lives Matter movement, a pandemic forces us to rely on the common sense of our neighbours, and fake news dominates our media, these ‘soft skills’ are paramount to seeing us through as unscathed as possible.

My humanities education has been critically important to both my personal and professional development. […] A lot of my humanities education has taken place outside of the classroom volunteering for various organisations and communities, often in entrepreneurial settings. This helped me to develop soft skills such as leadership, diplomacy, and communication, which continue to play a big role in my personal and professional life.
— NICK FABBRI, BACHELOR OF ARTS GRADUATE AND GOVERNANCE COORDINATOR AND DISASTER RELIEF AND RECOVERY FUND AT AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS.

A world without knowledge of the humanities – what would that look like? As a historian, I have been particularly outraged by this move by the Australian Government as just weeks ago, our Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that Australia ‘had no slavery’. He was promptly and passionately corrected, with people eager to educate the PM and the Australian public about our country’s history of blackbirding – a history that many are unaware of. As it came in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and the destruction of an Indigenous heritage site in Western Australia, such an incredibly inaccurate and tone-deaf statement from our Prime Minister just a week before disincentivising students from taking history courses is an unbelievable instance of irony. With calls to remove statues of Australia’s colonisers and a long-standing debate around Australia Day and the traditional owners of the land, knowledge of Australia’s history remains crucial to our present – so why push students away?

The outrage that has met the proposed fee changes has been seen as an overreaction to some because, after all, arts degrees aren’t going away: they’re just a little more expensive. But one of the greatest strengths of the humanities is its diversity, as Meghan Grech, a history Honours student at the University of Melbourne, explains:

One of the most valuable things about my arts degree has been sitting in a room with people of different life experiences while talking about how diverse the world is and how we can make it a kinder place for one another. [The proposed change] actively undermines some of the most important parts of the degree by making it inaccessible to people who aren’t financially stable enough to take an expensive degree.
— MEGHAN GRECH.

Universities are already criticised for their lack of diversity in their student cohorts, and rightly so. In 2018, only 17.5% of university students were of low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, while only 1.9% were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students. Raising the fees for arts degrees could prevent students of diverse backgrounds from enrolling as they try to avoid graduating with ‘a debt sentence’, as the National Union of Students has pointed out. For an academic area that thrives on diverse perspectives and trains students to appreciate and utilise that diversity, a reversion to the traditional elitism where only the wealthy can undertake these degrees would be tragic. In a sense, the homogenisation of humanities students would make an arts degree a less valuable experience – perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy from the Federal Government that worries both students and staff.

[T]he most distressing thing about the proposed changes is the impact they will have on students. […] As someone who grew up in a small town in Tasmania, I am well aware that pathways to university are not always obvious or easy for students. I remain deeply thankful for the chance to explore a field I am passionate about - history - and to study and teach it. I want the same opportunities, and a level playing field, for my students now and in the future.
— DR. JENNY SPINKS, HANSEN SENIOR LECTURER IN HISTORY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE.

Is this what Australia needs? Let’s recap: the Australian Government intends to push students away from the humanities, law, and communications degrees and into the fields of science, mathematics, teaching, nursing, and agriculture, among others. This is their attempt to address low employment rates, but their own statistics on graduate employment outcomes don’t agree with the proposed solution. Not only do the proposed fee changes fail to respond to employment statistics, they also fail to recognise the value that humanities degrees inherently hold, despite the historical missteps our politicians continually make (did I mention that politics is an Arts major?). From crucial soft skills to a better understanding of the present and the people around us, the skills that arts degrees teach students are irreducible to being ‘job-relevant’ or ‘job-irrelevant’. So, what can we do about it?

The sweeping changes to university fees still need to pass the Senate and, unsurprisingly, several petitions have arisen in protest. If you disagree with the doubling in cost of humanities degrees, consider signing the National Union of Students’ petition here Greens party’s petition here. The NUS is also hosting a meeting via Zoom to discuss the issue – find out how to attend and have your voice heard here.

FEATURE BY KATHRYN SHANKS
THANK YOU TO DR. JENNY SPINKS, MEGHAN GRECH AND NICK FABBRI

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