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We Don’t Need No Education!: Arts degrees and the repurposing of higher education.


‘Terrified’ by the arts degree

On the one hand, given the limited effects, it hardly seems worth the trouble. On the other hand, misinformation must be corrected — apparently, continually. And so, to Professor Sophie Gee’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald this week, which points out, yet again, that there is no truth to the claim that an arts degree will not ‘lead to a well-paid job’. This was written as a rebuttal to an earlier opinion piece in the SMH which told its readers that while the writer was proud of her daughter’s brave decision to undertake an arts degree, she was ‘quietly terrified’ at what this might do for her daughter’s prospects of employment.

Sigh. This latter article demonstrates, again, how sticky misinformation can be.

The federal government’s ‘Job Ready Graduates’ restructuring of university funding has much to answer for, in this instance. This set the university fees for most of the humanities disciplines at a punitive level; an increase of 110% was deliberately aimed at discouraging enrolments.

Among the arguments used to justify this shift in policy was the false claim that humanities graduates were less likely to be employed after graduating than, say, science graduates (so, it followed, educating them was a waste of money). Presumably, the government knew this was wrong (the Australian Stats Office could have told them it was). The Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Group of Eight quickly refuted the claim, citing evidence which showed that employment levels for graduates in both areas were roughly equivalent (94.7 for the sciences and 95.8 for the humanities and social sciences).

Not much to be ‘terrified’ about there.

Of course, the suggestion that a humanities degree is useless has fallen on fertile soil. For many years now, the culture wars have campaigned against the arts degree: they have attacked what it says about the purpose of an education, the kinds of knowledges it nurtures and produces, and even the kinds of person it is said to attract.

This has been a successful campaign. The myth of the useless arts degree turns up all over the place.

The host of ABC TV’s Hard Quiz, Tom Gleeson, frequently sneers at contestants who admit that they are enrolled in an arts degree; he routinely suggests they are heading for a job behind the counter at McDonalds. On one such occasion, confronted with one such comment, the contestant responded with weary disdain — ‘that’s original’, she said, to considerable applause from the audience.

Perhaps some in that audience belonged to the 64% of graduates currently in the Australian workforce with a degree in the humanities or social sciences.

From the educated citizen to the qualified individual.

The arts degree is especially vulnerable because it runs so fundamentally against the grain of the instrumentalism of the political project to repurpose higher education initiated by the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s. Dawkins’ ‘Unified National System’ coerced universities into thinking of themselves as commercial businesses, and to align their teaching and research more closely with the priorities of government and the ‘needs’ of business.  Dawkins also broke up the binary system, which had been structured around a distinction between the vocational remit of the CAEs and the research and scholarly mission of the traditional universities, and pitched them all headlong into the market.

Over time, this has fundamentally changed the purpose of the Australian university. Our universities have been transformed from institutions devoted to educating our citizens, with all which that entails, into institutions which primarily aim to train individuals for the workforce.

The earlier mission was to provide an education that was broad and deep, that was about curiosity and learning how to know, and that was the product of generations of scholars serving as the custodians and curators of what our society might need to know. Nowadays, such a vision is all too easily characterized as anachronistic, something that is of interest only to a condescending and privileged ‘elite’.

The mission of the university has been steadily shrinking. Like so many other things in this country, the university has been forced to offer less, at a higher price, and with a diminished commitment to its institutional contribution to the public good and to the development of civil society.

This repurposing of the university does not only affect the humanities and the arts degree, however; it also affects other ‘generalist degrees’, such as those in science which also set out to provide ‘an education’. These had been the standard format for many years: students were educated through their bachelor’s degree and then topped it up with a vocationally oriented graduate qualification. As competition over ‘relevance’ ramped up, however, the vocational increasingly infiltrated the undergraduate space. Eventually, the demands of the vocations became decisive drivers, squeezing out most of everything that was not directly related to the training required.

We needed our institutions to aim higher than this. A successful civil society is much more than an aggregation of well-trained employees.

So, aiming higher ….

Right now, it is clear that our education systems would serve us better if they could provide us with a population that is sufficiently well educated to recognize misinformation when it sees it, that is ethically equipped to refuse the hypocrisy and falsehoods which infect our politics, that is capable of understanding its own histories and those of others, and which has the intellectual and civic stability to be able to debate the country’s futures without splintering into self-interested and venal fragments, factions and tribes.

We are entitled to wonder just how many of our universities any longer have the capacity or the inclination to undertake that kind of agenda.






  • Neat analysis (as we would expect), Graeme. I am keen to hear your thoughts on the role of universities in this situation. Is it a case of complicity, or something more active?

    I agree that the threat posed by terrified parents (and publics more generally) and antagonistic governments (and not only on the right) represent fundamental points of opposition for the Arts and Humanities, but what of the universities that are now profiting from expensive Arts degrees? Apart from hand ringing in certain quarters, it remains that universities have done quite well out of doubled fees; particularly given that student aspiration and degree choice is largely not determined by economics (that is, the students still enrol). At my place, we’ve found ourselves in the perverse situation of being, all of a sudden, quite valuable to the university, albeit at the expense of students! Any move to resist the Jobs Ready Package might not emerge from universities themselves…

    There is also something to be said on undertaking the pedagogical and emotional labour of fronting up to students who you know, through nothing more than ideological bastardry and executive fiat, are being screwed…but that might be a post for later.


    • Graeme Turner says:

      Hi Andrew. Thanks for the response. This is a great example of how little thought goes into education policy. The government seriously thought that raising the price of the humanities degrees would curtail demand, despite years of research pointing out that such things are not particularly price sensitive. The universities, for their part, were happy to see this as a way of dealing with whingeing humanities departments — although it would be interesting to know how much of that extra income actually went to the teaching programs which generated it. What is so disappointing is that the Labour government finds it convenient to hang on to the Jobs Ready structure, despite admittting its flaws.

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