Recent turmoil within the Higher Education sector has raised a longstanding debate regarding the value of university degrees, with a particular focus on arts and humanities. There has long been a narrative that these latter subjects are ‘soft’, focusing on art and academia for their own sakes whilst having little bearing beyond university. There has been much debate on policy initiatives to discourage students from pursuing these degrees, particularly in light of the Australian government’s plans to increase tuition fees for arts and humanities degrees in comparison to STEM subjects. In the UK academics have hit back against long-term efforts to devalue such degrees, launching SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) as a competitor to STEM.
When combating the bias against arts and humanities subjects, we must first note that it is untrue that these subjects do not present career opportunities. The significance of the UK’s ‘creative economy’ can not be ignored, with creative industries bringing £13 million to the economy hourly in 2018. The study of arts and humanities provides the foundation for much of the culture that we consume, particularly in the cases of literature, theatre and art. Arts and humanities degrees also encourage the development of empathetic, creative and communicative skills that have clear benefits for those seeking work in the current market. Discouraging students from studying such degrees will further increase the inequality and inaccessibility which is often prominent within the creative industry.
It is also clear to see the ways in which a positive vision of the future holds a place for the arts and humanities. In times of political and environmental turmoil, much of the future will be shaped by humanity’s scientific understanding, and we will naturally look towards those with such skills as leaders and innovators. However, in doing so we must not forget the role which the arts and humanities play in shaping our understanding of ourselves and of our world.
We can consider the unease regarding the value of these courses as representative of the modern problem of the university as a business, rather than the primarily educational spaces that they would ideally be. As students and as consumers, we have begun to think of university degrees as a crucial step towards a lucrative career, rather than as tools with which to create a more informed, rounded and empathetic society, and this is reflected in our apprehension towards subjects that are not linked to a clear career path.
In uncertain times, it is natural for students to be concerned about career prospects, and this presents an opportunity to reshape our relationship with education. We should now consider the way in which we can build an economy which suits our needs. We must recognise the positive impact that these subjects have on our society, through furthering our understanding of our history and culture, and producing the creative mediums we consume. As we look towards building a sustainable future, we must challenge the notion that the only valuable pursuits are those which are financially lucrative.