A Humanities education: what’s the point?

Minister Tehan’s recent announcement of a dramatic increase in the cost of Humanities degrees at Australian universities has had one positive outcome: there has been a powerful articulation across all media of why the Humanities matter.

Proponents have argued for the special place of the Humanities in equipping students with developed skills to make judgments about complex issues on the basis of conflicting evidence, to express complicated ideas clearly and to interrogate the bases of human behaviour.

We can hardly over-estimate the civic importance of a perspective which emphasizes cultural understanding, careful judgement, flexibility of outlook and respect for difference. In a multi-cultural society in a globalising world, that is fundamental.

History in particular seeks to equip students with the critical skills necessary to contest spurious claims about the past, so often the basis of claims about ‘national character’. The social responsibility of historians in Australia has never been more pressing than in contemporary debates over reconciliation and Australia’s place in the world.

Minister Tehan may not disagree with such statements, but at the heart of the debate he has sparked are claims and counter-claims about an education in the Humanities and subsequent employment.

The Minister has explicitly justified the increases in the costs of Humanities courses because – Languages aside – they do not produce “job-ready” graduates.

Others, such as our national Academy of the Humanities, have countered by pointing to the employment of Humanities graduates in teaching, the public service, the arts and recreation. Humanities are the fibre of so much of the innovation, creativity and joy in our culture.

So who should we believe about the Humanities and employment? There is some powerful evidence that leads to two clear conclusions. One is that Humanities graduates make careers, even if not in as linear a way as other graduates.

The second is that the Minister’s stated contrast in the outcomes of STEM and Humanities education flies in the face of evidence from here and overseas.

In 2012 the Gillard government funded the Securing Australia’s Future project to be delivered by ACOLA, the Australian Council of Learned Academies (Science, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Technology and Engineering).

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, then Alan Finkel and Michael Barber oversaw eleven multidisciplinary projects ranging from new technologies to education and regional engagement. The eleven project reports were completed in 2017 under the Abbott government.

The final report identified education as one of the five ‘golden threads’ running through the eleven projects, emphasizing both the importance of STEM and of ensuring the excellence of every branch of education.

In particular, the project on “skills and capabilities for Australian enterprise innovation” conducted interviews with managers of the most innovative enterprises in Australia and found them characterized by “people and teams with a mix of skills” and “broad knowledge bases” including the Humanities.

Overseas quantitative analysis supports this view. In 2013 a US survey of 318 businesses with 25 or more employees showed that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of a Humanities education—was more important than a job candidate's specific major.

The chief executive officers of 30 mostly high-tech companies in Canada — ranging from IBM and Xerox to Motorola— have issued a statement noting that many of their workers began their education in the humanities.

In their words, “This was time well spent, not squandered. They have increased their value to our companies, our economy, our culture and themselves, by acquiring the level of cultural and civic literacy that the humanities offer.”

In theory, the student fees for individual courses reflect both the cost of delivery and the lifetime earning capacity of graduates. So Law has been relatively cheap to deliver, but students have been expected to repay a higher proportion of the cost than students in Humanities because of better-remunerated careers.

Over the past forty years, governments have regularly adjusted the funding levels of individual courses in order to increase student preferences: hence the praiseworthy proposed reduction in the cost of Languages. 

But what the government has now proposed is to increase – massively – the cost of Humanities degrees in order to reduce student preferences.

It may be, as many have suggested, a particularly obvious broadside in our simmering culture wars, but it is also a disservice to the values embedded in our civic culture and to the requirements of business enterprise and innovation.

The Minister would do better to encourage students to embrace their academic interests – whatever they are – with verve and enthusiasm.

Professor Peter McPhee AM FAHA FASSA
Chair, History Council of Victoria

23 June 2020

This statement has been endorsed by the other three History Councils in Australia: HC New South WalesHC South Australia and HC Western Australia

We encourage you to call on the Australian Government to rethink its proposal for funding of the study of history in universities.
We have provided contact details for relevant parliamentarians on this page: Australia Needs More Humanities & Social Science Graduates