Why Do We Scoff at Arts Degrees?

Why Do We Scoff at Arts Degrees?

Last week, the government announced its plans to slash the costs of the uni degrees it deems most essential in our current economy – namely teaching, nursing, agriculture, science, mathematics and engineering. So far so good. Youth unemployment has skyrocketed to 16.1% because of the virus, and the government is going to increase the number of university places to 100,000 by 2030. What could be bad about encouraging more people to go to uni and become nurses and teachers and scientists, especially at a time like this?

Nothing at all – until they announced it would come at the cost of other students. The price of law, commerce and the arts are set to increase massively, with a humanities degree now costing the most, from $20,400 to $43,500: an increase of 113%.

If you have a friend who studies Arts, you probably already know all this. My Instagram and Facebook have lit up with angry posts, and as an Arts student myself, I am with them and I am pissed.

Every Arts student has heard the jokes. BA stands for Bugger-all, do you want fries with that etc., etc. Usually we just smile and laugh along, because we’re passionate about what we study and know there’s value in it. But that doesn’t change the fact that this attitude really does turn people away from humanities.

Ignoring the irony that Arts students actually have higher employment rates than science students and that degrees in law, economics and arts are easily the most common credentials among Australia’s current ministers and shadow ministers, including Scomo with his degree in Economic Geography and Daniel Tehan, the Education Minister who made the announcement, with his three(!) degrees in the field of humanities. Ignoring the irony that the transferable skills taught in the humanities, including creativity, critical thinking, empathy and initiative are among the most sought-after skills for employers – that is, human skills, which we haven’t yet been able to teach to robots and algorithms. Ignoring all of that, there is still something both foolish and disturbing about the consistent undervaluing of the arts.

A university education is increasingly being focused on producing cooperative and highly employable graduates, with our universities becoming more like businesses focused on profit and turning out idealised workers than as places for learning and challenging yourself. And this is at a time where we’ve never needed people more who can and are encouraged to think for themselves. We obviously need doctors and engineers too, but they are not the only people we need, and never have been.

Recent events make it obvious that those who control the retelling of history have incredible power. This is one thing made abundantly clear in an Arts degree. I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until the second year of my Geography major that I learned something about how Indigenous people practiced and continue to practice traditional agricultural methods, which have left a clear mark on the Australian landscape, and that the signs of this are abundant if you only know how to look. Learning this ran completely contrary to the white settler hunter-gatherer narrative I was taught to absorb and never really question growing up. And this is just one example of a moment in my studies  that rewired the way I think and see the world, and how I interact in it.

Humanities encompasses dozens of different study areas, including languages, social sciences and artistic fields. Within each of these areas lie countless opportunities for enlightening experiences that can change the course of a life. Many lives really, as what we all learn shapes how we move through the world.

People know this, and despite the stigma, the humanities remain very popular, with the BA having the highest number of first-preference applications in Victoria last year. But these changes could do irretrievable damage and push humanities further into neglect, a frankly dangerous move. The humanities can already feel inaccessible for people from less privileged backgrounds, including those who need to see a return on their student debt and time spent studying most urgently. If we don’t want to make humanities the domain of a wealthy ‘elite’, then these changes mustn’t go ahead. I have been deeply saddened today reading accounts of mature-age students and high-school leavers who were so excited to enrol now questioning if they can afford to study what they love. And such an increase for domestic students may mean an increase for international students too, even though they already pay more than double for the same degrees.

The loss of these thinkers would be a loss for all of us. It suits the government perfectly well to discourage disciplines that advocate for challenging systems and questioning authority, to help ensure diversity does not bring colour and empathy to the way we view the world and each other. Especially at a time when we are particularly vulnerable to their regulations and advice.

But we know better. Life is about more than getting a good job and supporting the economy, and none of us exist exclusively for that purpose. In fact, I think we all get pretty miserable when we act as if that’s all there is. For one thing, this quarantine would’ve been much harder to get through if it wasn’t for the work of so many creative and entrepreneurial people. Because creativity and expression and self-reflection are arguably as important to our community as good healthcare workers. It’s part of what makes us human.

If the government really wanted to prepare and empower us for a new post-COVID world, then this wouldn’t be the decision they’d be making.

Cover by Stephanie Hau 

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