By Tom Harbottle
Government attitudes towards studying at university are changing. In a recent press release, the government announced plans to reform the way student loans are granted and repaid. In short, the government aims to slash funding for degrees unlikely to lead to successful graduate jobs, in other words those which earn less than the new threshold of payment, £25,000. This comes alongside setting the student interest rate to RPI+0%. Graduates will not pay more than they borrowed, and the repayment period will change to 40 years.
The government’s attitude under Tony Blair, however, was very different. Blair pushed to get 50% of school-leavers into universities. This was viewed as a productive endeavor. It was thought that a higher number of university graduates in the workforce would fuel the economy and promote social mobility. However, we are now seeing a re-examination of which degrees are worth this encouragement.
So-called ‘Mickey Mouse Degrees’ have been targeted as draining of government resources and unfair on the taxpayer. Under the government’s new policy, these courses are defined as ones that are ‘poor quality’ and those which ‘do not lead to a graduate job with a good wage’.
It is no secret that the Arts and Humanities are often dismissed as degrees with lower-paying futures. Older attitudes are, arguably, responsible for categorizing these types of degrees in this way. STEM or business, for example, are favored as intrinsically harder, more worthwhile, or ‘worth’ caring about.
This old yet still alive way of thinking about degrees in the Arts and Humanities is wrong (in both a factual and moral sense) for two main reasons. Firstly, it undervalues and inaccurately categorizes the role that graduates in these areas can and will play in the future of the job market. Secondly, this thinking poorly and narrowly defines what it means to study at university today.
There are, of course, many degrees in the Arts and Humanities that can and do easily lead to jobs that exceed the salaries of many jobs in other sectors. The humanities are generally accepted to be defined as a branch of learning that deals with human culture and society. This includes the study of Law, Languages, Literature, Philosophy, and History. The arts include the study of Architecture, Performing Arts, Fashion, and Visual Arts. This list alone proves that the link between humanities graduates and a low income after graduation is not absolute.
Lawyers and architects, for example, can have incredibly lucrative professions after graduation, surpassing many of their non-arts and humanities peers. Even non-law students make more on average as lawyers than their peers who studied law vocationally, earning between £84,580 and £112,773, versus £71,626. Engineer and business graduates are also only 1% less likely to be unemployed than those with a humanities degree in the US (3% compared to 4%).
The Arts and Humanities bring essential skills for the workplace that are very often specifically required, such as critical thinking, interpreting and effectively conveying large swathes of information, a sense of empathy, and people skills. Employees under 40 in leadership positions were mostly comprised of those with humanities or social sciences degrees, according to a recent study. These are also all not only skills for work, but general life.
Even if these facts were ignored, attitudes towards what graduates are looking for in the workplace and out of their lives are changing. The generation now beginning to enter the workforce is redefining what ‘success’ means and are prioritizing different things when deciding what to do with their lives.
16% of Gen Z are struggling with feeling engaged or excited about work, and 54% of the general workforce are feeling overworked. Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that, according to research done by Microsoft, a whopping 41% of people are considering quitting their jobs.
A survey by LinkedIn found that employees’ number one priority when looking for a job in 2021 was work-life balance, something which has only risen since the pandemic by 6.3%. It is clear, then, that the priorities of young people are rapidly changing. Aspiring employees are looking to put first things that genuinely interest them, leaving behind the purely money-focused mindset that was more common in the past.
Looking at education solely in the contexts of graduate employment and economic growth can be problematic. Not only does it overlook why many people study at university in the first place, but it can also discourage many students from pursuing these courses. The music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the buildings you live in, the books you read, and the movies you watch, are the fruits of arts and humanities students’ labour. We should be encouraging the pursuit of these things, not dismissing them as unimportant.
The proposed government plans are arguably not all that radical in themselves. They might, in fact, benefit a large number of people (mainly taxpayers). However, we cannot ignore the consequences these plans will have in the long-term. These plans perpetuate dangerous attitudes towards the Arts and Humanities which, as I’ve shown, are neither helpful nor true.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova