Oh, for the love of humanities

| July 28, 2020

On 19 June, past, present and future HASS (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) students like myself witnessed yet another repeated policy failure.

The Federal Government proposed to reprioritise university funding to support the jobs of the future, disproportionately increasing fees and incentivising students into degrees that politicians think are better for them regardless of their interests or aptitudes.

To revalue the humanities on the premise of contemporary employment trends seems a great injustice likely to work against the very economic goals it is trying to achieve. Pushing students into the ‘job-ready’ market denotes a lack of planning for the future with many of today’s jobs not guaranteed to exist in the future.

The predictability of the job-market is becoming increasingly difficult to anticipate due to rapid technological change, automation and globalisation. It is truly impossible to know what vocational skills will be needed in the future. Young people need the ‘right’ skills rather than the ‘right’ job in order to grapple with the constantly evolving world, and world of work.

The contribution of HASS graduates should not go unrecognised, argues Professor Sharon Pickering, Monash University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Deloitte Access Economics stresses the value of teaching students to think critically, solve complex problems and communicate flexibly as important skills to drive businesses and build better societies.

Many of these skills were specifically mentioned in the Government’s own Skills for the Future document.  These so-called ‘soft skills’ are critical for creating a flexible and responsive generation capable to meet the demands, or be it the jobs of their time, rather than of the past. However, this is not to say that STEM is less important or beneficial to our future.

Cross-disciplinary learning is more important now, more than ever, to prepare for the future as it challenges siloed thinking and promotes deep thinking across a range of perspectives.

Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies supported cross-disciplinary learning, stating in 1957:

“Let the scientists be touched and informed by the humanities. Let the humanists be touched and informed by science, so that they may not be lost in abstractions derived from out-dated knowledge or circumstances.”

A revival of academic principles, committing to a holistic education system that sees all disciplines complement, rather than compete, against each other would advance Australia’s current education results.

Empowering lifelong learning (rather than repurposing university funding) will better prepare young people for the future and drive economic prosperity. Schools and universities should continue to interact with students well after graduation, and individuals should be able to re-enter education to build on their skill portfolio without feeling stigmatised.

Australia can benefit from the experiences of its European counterpart, Finland, for example, implements liberal adult education institutions to support the wellbeing and versatile development of its citizens. Better incentives and government assistance for upskilling and retraining can also enable smoother worker transitions and ensure that the Australian workforce can overcome current and future challenges, as seen with the recent reskilling of workers at Holden.

Finally, a more thoughtful approach to vocational education that encourages the interaction between VET programmes and universities, as seen in Germany’s ‘dual’ training approach, will facilitate smooth school-to-work transitions and low rates of youth unemployment – a more sustainable solution for the future.

The world needs to be a balance of STEM and HASS. To revalue the humanities will have short and long-term effects on our workforce and society. Government, educational institutions and industry need to work together to inspire individuals to not only access, but explore all of the opportunities education can provide for the rest of their lives.