Unpredictable labour market makes arts degree more relevant

Is an arts degree valuable in the world of work?

Is an arts degree valuable in the world of work?

OPINION: A recent report from Radio New Zealand of declining enrolments in arts degrees at a number of New Zealand universities is bad news, and not just for those universities where numbers are declining. In fact, primarily it's bad news for individuals missing out on the chance of an education in the humanities and social sciences, and for the country. Here's why.

Let's put aside, for the purposes of this argument, all of those socially desirable things that a BA can impart: knowledge of self and curiosity regarding the world, the capacity to listen as well as to mount a cogent argument, and the ability to ask awkward questions of those in positions of power.

Instead, let's focus directly on the very thing that a BA is said to be irrelevant for: work. There is no question that the labour market of the future will be very different to that of the past, and even the present. And that future is closer than you might think. It is a given that the increasing sophistication and speed of change in technology means that many jobs are at risk of computerisation. One estimate from Oxford University puts the figure at 46 per cent.

Relatedly, research by Massey University demographer Professor Paul Spoonley suggests that two thirds of children presently in school will do jobs that do not yet exist. What's more, they can expect to have up to seven discrete occupations over their working lives.

So when RNZ quotes Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan as saying that "more students are opting for courses with an obvious job at the end", there is a problem. The problem is that word 'obvious', because in fact it is not at all obvious that degrees that sound like a job will continue to actually lead to that job. This is not because of any deficiency in such degrees, but because of the rapidly changing nature of work. 

Employers are increasingly looking to complement workers' technical skills with the transferable skills – like the capacities to think critically, communicate clearly, and cope with cultural diversity – that employees need to negotiate a world of work that is fast changing and unpredictable. What they need are employees who are able to learn something, unlearn it when circumstances change, and relearn something new – whether in commerce, computing, communications or creative industries (among the many career sectors that BA grads work in, by the way). 

Given these developments it is vital that, as a nation, we start talking intelligently about what counts as a skill these days. Of course we need the skills associated with science, technology, maths, engineering and IT – but it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, not to acknowledge the evidence that says we also need the kinds of transferable skills that lie at the heart of a BA.

At Massey we have refreshed our BA with precisely these future developments in mind. The sorts of transferable skills we know are in demand are woven into the structure of our BA via a bespoke core curriculum, and we are actively fostering ties with employers right across the private and public sectors.

We must be doing something right, because rather than declining, the numbers of students enrolled in our BA have increased in recent years. We'd like to think that one of the reasons for this is that we have seen a glimpse of the future – and it looks like a BA. 

Oh, and the final line of that research from Oxford about the impact of digitisation? It reads: 'For workers to win the race [against computerisation], however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.' Exactly like those offered in a good BA.

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Professor Richard Shaw is a political studies lecturer and director BA (external connections) at Massey University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which last week hosted a public discussion, Arts21, on the role and contribution of the arts to the New Zealand society and economy in Wellington at Te Papa Museum.

 - Stuff

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