Won’t somebody think of the skills?

| August 4, 2020

The Australian Government’s decision to uproot the higher education funding model in order to incentivise ‘job ready’ graduates in high growth sectors will create a critical employability skills shortage for a world of increasing automation and societal complexity.

The plan, unveiled by the Education Minister Dan Tehan in June, will see humanities, arts and social science (HASS) students cover 93% of the cost of their degree, up from the 52% burden share currently. Those studying HASS will be paying for the significant fee reduction for teaching, nursing, agricultural, maths and STEM courses identified as ‘high priority employment areas’.

Mr Tehan stated, “What we don’t want to see is students entering the higher education system, undertaking study and then not having the skills that they will need to take these jobs of the future.” Unfortunately, looking at employability studies and workplace trends, the reduction in HASS funding might see this exact situation occur.

Arts-based tertiary degrees lead to a high employability level thanks in part to the development of and focus on ‘soft-skills’ that a graduate has. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report analysed the critical employment skills needed for workplaces and employees to prosper in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a globalised acceleration of artificial intelligence and machine learning, automation and robotics throughout many sectors.

The report lists complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, emotional intelligence, and cognitive flexibility among others as they key skills employers are searching for in graduates.

The Federal Government’s own Skills for the future outlook shares many of the same requirements. It also notes that “these skills are highly transferable, meaning they will be valued by many different employers across a range of industries and roles”.

The notion of a ‘job ready’ focus with Commonwealth funding misconstrues the success of HASS graduates and their studies. The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teachings’ ‘Graduate Outcomes Survey’ found that 84% HASS graduates find employment after graduation – higher than graduates from science, mathematics and information systems degrees. The studies also show those with arts degrees are similarly renumerated compared to their STEM counterparts. \

The impending careers shake-up caused by automation will do little to impact the employment rates of HASS students, in fact, it may do just the opposite. The communication, emotional intelligence, people management and critical thinking skills developed in humanities degrees will be transferable to a wider range of sectors and will be in even more high demand if Australia is to successfully chart a path out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences of which we are only just uncovering.

The innovation long fostered in our universities is also at risk, with recent modelling showing that the diversion of students from humanities to ‘job ready’ courses will cost the university sector $900 million in funding. As Prof James Guthrie AM writes in the Journal of Behavioural Economics and Social Systems, “well-rounded university education also lays the groundwork for the innovation required to deal with global problems”.

If the government’s central aim of the post-pandemic recovery is to get people back into jobs, hiking up the prices for certain HASS courses by 113%, in which women comprise two-thirds of total enrolments, it is a puzzling way to go about it.
I am certainly not the first, nor the last, to write an article on Australia’s new funding model for universities on this platform.

Indeed, two of my peers, Leila Maugeri and Sophie Mayo, wrote about their personal experiences and how their arts degrees have shaped their careers. I can only add to their positive experiences, for my degrees (a Bachelor of Global Studies and a Diploma in Languages) have given me the critical skills required to be job ready.

The cross-cultural communication, critical thinking and cognitive flexibility skills that I developed during my time in tertiary education have made my entry into the workforce as smooth as possible, and the intellectual curiosity driven by the research-heavy degree has only grown with my current role.

I fear that this funding revamp will only continue the corrosive commercialisation of our tertiary education system, for students will be pigeonholed into selecting degrees based on their financial situation, rather than the bigger career picture of employability skills.

That most of our politicians have a humanities-focused degree signifies the very importance of them to our future. In an increasingly globalised and challenging world, the need for critical thinking, communication and understanding is greater than ever. Impeding access to humanities degrees will make Australia’s path through contemporary challenges murkier than the government recognises.