Arts degrees have a reputation. It’s often students themselves who are the first to self-deprecate, rolling their eyes at themselves and joking about their rising HECS debt. The value of an arts degree is often difficult to comprehend because its value is not directly related to career outcomes. They teach broadly applicable skills, especially critical thinking, which are less tangible than more technical courses.
The benefits of an arts education extend far beyond their capacity to make young people more employable. They provide students with the basic toolkit for how to think critically, engage with complicated ideas, and look beyond the surface layers of life and work. Something important seems to be lost when the focus shifts further towards career preparation. In This Is Water during a speech given to graduates by the writer David Foster Wallace, he looks at the old cliche of arts degrees ‘teaching you how to think’. He says: “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience”.
Anna, 28, is a University of Melbourne student who holds a PhD in cancer biology. Anna quit her research job to study a Masters of Global Media, making an unusual transfer from a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) to the humanities. She said: “I’ve always had an interest in the humanities. It’s been a recurring theme since I was in high school. I guess at the end of my PhD, I just felt it was time to explore this side.” She finds her degree “profoundly interesting” but concedes that it’s done little to prepare her for the workplace.
Discussing her career prospects, Anna said: “comparing it to STEM, career-wise, which has a more narrow and ordered route, I feel like jobs in the humanities are a lot more amorphous – which is both a boon, but also intimidating and overwhelming”. Graduates of Australia’s arts degrees have a different road to tread when they finish studying, most of the time there’s no obvious career for them to aim for. Arts graduates are, in many ways, both spoilt for choice and paralysed by it. She added: “There appears to be a greater sense of competition, like the barriers to entry are steeper. You have to know someone to get your foot in the door.”
Charlie is 23 and graduated from a Bachelor of Arts majoring in politics and international studies in 2016. She works as a barista in Melbourne’s north. She defends her arts education even though it hasn’t yet lead to a paying job. “People always denigrate arts degrees as useless and a waste of money, the notion of education for the sake of education is, I believe, of grave importance. I truly believe that if everyone did an arts degree prior to their chosen field, the world would be a more enlightened, less violent, less disparate place.”
Despite having some of the highest enrolment rates (arts at The University of Melbourne was the most selected course in VTAC applications according to their statistics), arts degrees seem chronically undervalued and underfunded. An academic, who preferred to speak anonymously, pointed to fee-hikes and increasing financial pressure on institutions as an ongoing problem: “reduced funding to universities is always going to punish students. In the arts, we don’t have much to take away”. He added that university teaching, like much of the workforce, is becoming casualised to combat funding cuts. Many casual lecturers have not taught their subjects before, and may get cycled out again the next year. Time pressure means there’s also less time for course design: “courses stagnate over time, and some courses still work within a framework that went out-of-date a decade ago.”
He also suggested that the skills that arts graduates have are more valuable to employers than you might assume, having spoken to employers who value critical thinking skills: “I’d hope that we can impart a capacity to exercise judgment, to understand things, to know how to make claims and argue for their ideas”.
Many graduates speak of being discouraged seeing friends from other fields progress into more linear careers. Charlie, who lives with a speech pathologist and a veterinary doctor, said she sometimes wishes she had a clearer career path, but remains optimistic: “there’s a certain flexibility with the path I have chosen. I can go in so many different directions and work for several different organisations”. In a job climate where industries are disrupted and people switch careers more than ever before, that flexibility can start to feel like a real advantage.