Familiar jokes aside, qualifications in humanities, arts and social sciences offer tremendous value

Current funding policy has been characterised as disincentivising the study of HASS disciplines in Australia, but they actually offer a lot to graduates and to society.

Current university funding policies, such as the “Job Ready Graduates” student funding package and the contentious ministerial veto power over ARC grants, have attracted criticism as an escalation of an ongoing attack on the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) disciplines. Under the Job Ready Graduates package, for example, the biggest increases to student contributions—of $7,800 a year—would be in humanities other than languages.

The traditional criticisms of HASS disciplines are that they add little to our stock of national knowledge and do not correspond with strong employment prospects. They are not, in short, as desirable as other disciplines.

But does this view really “check out”? HASS disciplines have more value than many of us probably realise, actually.

To start with, those graduating with arts degrees in Australia enjoy a higher employment rate than STEM graduates and earn slightly more than those who study better-incentivised qualifications, such as mathematics or science. Curiously, arts graduates are actually well-represented among those who create policy. Crikey tallied this up in 2020: of the 23 government ministers, nine completed a Bachelor of Arts, as did 14 of the 2020 shadow ministers.

But HASS have value in more than just employment stats and the odd distinction of over-representation among government ministers. HASS graduates work in culturally significant professions across the globe and their creative skills contribute to our wellbeing. During the Covid-19 lockdowns of the last few years, many of us relied on our ubiquitous access to music, writing or audio-visual entertainment.

HASS qualifications are also important to foreign policy. ‘Soft power,’ defined by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as “our ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas,” relies significantly on cultural diplomacy and, yes, support for the arts. For example, American cinema has historically been one of the most influential examples of soft power in the world.

HASS qualifications may be the butt of many jokes, but they truly are not wishy-washy non-degrees—they teach highly-valued communication skills, provide media literacy in an increasingly fraught media landscape, develop critical thinking, and help us become informed and engaged citizens. These disciplines do have tremendous value—which is probably why, of Australia’s 29 Prime Ministers, ten have held a Bachelor of Arts.

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