In defence of the humanities

| July 21, 2020

As an Arts Graduate from the University of Technology Sydney I was disappointed by the government’s recent decision to more than double the price of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) degrees.

It is difficult to reconcile the disproportionate debt HASS students will face upon completing their degrees. Regardless of the skills the Australian job market is in short supply of, to effectively penalise a student for their interests and aptitudes seems a great injustice, particularly when HASS students are often those tasked with fostering more just communities and societal values.

After my initial outrage and dismay at the thought of future critical thinkers – a key HASS skill, as has been pointed out by many in this debate – choosing alternative disciplines to study for fear of higher levels of debt, I looked into the research the policy was founded on, which originated from a report by Deloitte Access Economics.

It is concerning, to say the least, that some of the data from this report was incomplete and thus skewed the outcome. This fact potentially negates the basis of the policy, calling into question the legitimacy of fee increases. Irrespective of whether or not the policy is morally legitimate, I am sceptical it will have the intended effect of attracting fewer candidates to HASS.

The Financial Review pointed out that it may make financial sense for universities to offer more places in HASS subjects that cost students more, particularly at a time when government subsidies to universities are decreasing.

On an anecdotal level, I don’t recall myself nor my friends ever considering how large our HECS debts would be when selecting our university preferences. Of course, this is not to say that reflection on your prospective job-readiness and debt after completing your chosen degree is not necessary nor beneficial.

As was pointed out by the Deputy Chancellor of ANU, encouraging Arts students to select a broader range of cross-disciplinary subjects could result in positive outcomes.

In my own experience, having completed a Bachelor of Arts (Global Studies) and currently undertaking a Masters of Commerce (Economics) cross-disciplinary study is a great way to expand your mind, apply and build upon previously honed skills, and move away from siloed thinking, as well as a way to make yourself more employable.

There are clearly obvious benefits to cross-disciplinary study; however, to imply that Arts degrees alone do not produce ‘job-relevant skills’ is a stretch, if not a fallacy, when you consider the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Skills Needed to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I believe that I am a fundamentally more curious and agile learner because of the skills I learnt from my Arts degree, which brings me to my last point – if the government is trying to discourage young people from studying HASS, what does this say about the future of our democracy?

Arts students are typically taught to be inquisitive and questioning of political, economic and social processes, essential qualities to a healthy and fair democracy.

Contextualising the recent $84 million cuts to the ABC alongside HASS degree fee-increases paints a scary picture of the future of Australian democracy.

Aside from feeling sorry for fee-fearing students who may not get the thrill of broadening their minds through the challenging ideas presented in HASS subjects, I can’t escape the thought that the government is trying to create a generation of ‘quiet Australians’, a disturbing thought indeed.