On Tuesday night, the House of Representatives passed the Jobs-ready Graduates Package, the Federal Government’s plan to hike university fees in areas including the humanities in order to cover its reduced contributions to STEM degrees.
There is no doubt that building a STEM workforce is an important goal for Australia. But the argument that it has to be either/or – that there is a direct link between the number of people choosing to study the Arts and fewer people enrolling in science and mathematics degrees – is spurious.
Even more doubtful is the claim that studying humanities makes graduates less ‘job-ready’ as the title of the legislation suggests.
I obtained an Arts degree at the ANU. At the time, I endured the usual jibes from friends in more ‘vocational’ courses like science and law, about how I’d receive my McDonald’s job application form alongside my diploma.
I had the last laugh, though. I walked out of my degree straight into a junior position earning over $55,000 and have stayed in full-time employment for the most part ever since.
For the past several years, the skills I learnt in my Bachelor of Arts degree have netted me a consistent six-figure salary. My experience is not unusual. In fact, research shows that the graduate job outcomes for science and maths graduates are almost identical to humanities graduates, with over 60 per cent in full-time work within a year across disciplines.
But the savvy among us have known from the first press conference announcing this proposed legislation that the argument at its core has nothing to do with actual career outcomes or the job-readiness of graduates. It’s the same old culture war that has been fought over decades on the value of humanities as a discipline at all.
The rhetoric around humanities degrees being pointless is built on the assumption that ‘usefulness’ should be defined only by what makes money, and how hard one has to work for it. Reading books and debating ideas is framed as time-wasting for people who don’t want to get a ‘real’ job.
Aside from the fact that Arts graduates do get real jobs, the undervaluing of the usefulness of critical thought is truly alarming. My Arts degree taught me how to evaluate and critically engage with information, a skill that is fundamental to a functioning democracy to enable rigorous interrogation of policies and laws, and to counteract the constant onslaught of advertising and propaganda from powerful groups across business, industry and the government.
I have no doubt that disciplines like law, medicine, science, maths, engineering, teaching, nursing, social care, youth work, construction, plumbing etc are vital for the functioning of our society. But so are journalism, public policy, community development and, though it pains me to say it, politics.
And if studying the humanities is considered the remit of privileged people with the economic means to do so, we should be trying to lower the economic barrier to enrolling in Arts degrees, not increase it to further hinder the diversity of opinions and backgrounds that we need to create a genuine culture of equality and representation when it comes to our policy, politics and media landscapes.
Maybe they’re just the naive hopes of an idealistic Arts graduate, but I think we could benefit as a country from more people studying the humanities, not less.