2 September 2020

My humanities degree earns me six figures, so why is it considered 'un-vocational' education?

| Zoya Patel
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Arts degrees have long been the butt of jokes, especially compared with more vocational degrees or trades. Photo: File.

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.

READ MORE ANU professor slams humanities fee hike as “lowest common denominator ideologically”

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.

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It’s a good question. I was pretty surprised a few years ago to find that Arts graduates were getting better starting salaries than a lot of (very smart) engineering and quant graduates. Partly it reflects the fact that Australia has a very developed services economy and a lot of manufacturing is done overseas. So if you are a good STEM graduate then it might be a case of “go north” (to the Indo-Pacific region) if you want to cut your teeth.

The prejudice against arts degrees may be snobbery in part. They are seen as not that difficult to get into or to pass. There’s no longer a requirement to first master a classical language (or any language other than English) to get into an arts course, as opposed to the position several generations ago. Whitlam freed up university courses and pretty soon everyone had an arts degree, but average intelligence didn’t increase so the prejudice started.

You get smart people with arts degrees, smart people with STEM degrees and plenty of very smart people who don’t have one at all.

Just a quick addition… I recall someone giving a presentation to one of Australia’s (surviving) industrial companies back in the early 2000s on this whole issue. His argument was that the expansion of the universities and in particular the increase in the number of Arts graduates had created a ‘constituency’ who ‘just expected’ to be provided with jobs, most likely government jobs. His argument was (a) that this constituency would put pressure on government to create those jobs when they weren’t necessarily needed and (b) that the constituency would have a natural Labor Party leaning.

So in effect a concern was growing back then that the Arts had a political leaning and that the supply side would distort the economy.

I am not sure that has happened, but it’s interesting that, at the same time, the French deconstructionists (Derrida) etc were starting to intrude into the Australian curriculum in a big way, and the graduates imbued with that kind of philosophical approach were treated warily by employers.

Getting paid to write here about the merits of humanities, goes to show the full value an arts degree… Showing you get paid alot is not an indicator you are providing valuable services.

Writing opinion pieces heralding arts and solidifying social divides by focusing on our differences…like most modern news the benefit to society is spurious at best. I have no doubt news used to be vital to the functioning of our society, but recently it seems toxic and divisive clickbait at best.

Not sure what research you are reading but the graduate statistics have shown that humanities and “arts” graduates have rates of full time employment around 10% lower than other sectors and earn around $10k less per year.

Although due to the economy over the last few years, graduates across the board have been struggling more than previously.

The problem we’ve got however, is due to the previous ALP government uncapping government supported positions, we have too many unsuitable people attending university when they would be better off going straight into the workforce.

So whilst I agree with you that we should remove financial burdens on students attending university, we should do that by capping government supported positions and raising standards.

Universities and particularly areas around the Humanities previously benefited from their intellectual elitism. Now, too often their sole purpose is to pump out people with a piece of paper that says they’re “qualified”.

That isn’t research, Its a news article written by a journalist.

If you wanted to see the current research on graduate outcomes, you would go here:


And if you wanted to see the previous gradstats info, you would go here:


As I said, if you look at the data over a longer period of time, you would see that humanities and graduates in industries with “softer” skills have lower employment rates and salaries than those more “vocational” areas you mention.

Anecdotes of high performers in other areas aren’t a subsitutue for data.

Focusing on one area of “maths and science” is also meaningless for this discussion, when you are then trying to conflate it to the wider employment market.

Maths and science graduates on their own have also struggled on the employment front as a more niche area but you have to look at other industries and over a longer period of time.

Engineering, Law, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy all have 20%+ higher graduate employment rates in their first year. Whilst these rates naturally reduce over time, it doesnt negate the point.

Also, as I said above, Australian and global economic conditions have seen issues for the wider graduate employment market in recent years, depressing growth in employment and salaries but these effects don’t subsitutue for the long term trends.

Thats not research, thats one news article quoting some statistics comparing ‘humanities, culture and social sciences’ with ‘Science and mathematics’, minus engineering, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, vet science and psychology, which each have separate fields and a higher rate of employment.

Cherry picking statistics, not a good basis for objective and critical thinking, especially when you proclaim journalism in its current form to be vital for the functioning of our society.

Zoya, the Humanities and STEP bits don’t have to make sense. They’re just a bait-and-switch. Tehan’s package is better interpreted as a form of class warfare, to restrict lucrative degrees to the more entitled, and keep povo students in debt for more COVID years:


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