The university debate - a place for passion or a ticket to a job?

Sophie Curtis graduated with a degree in criminology and philosophy in 2013 and now works as a library assistant for a ...
Ross Giblin

Sophie Curtis graduated with a degree in criminology and philosophy in 2013 and now works as a library assistant for a government department.

After three years at university, Sophie Curtis was right back where she started.

Since the age of 14, she'd worked part-time in public libraries, shelving her way up to library assistant. And here she was again, at 21, working 30 hours a week for pittance. Only this time, the job came with a side serving of disillusionment and a $50,000 debt.  

"You've gone through university, you've come out thinking you're going to be a proper professional and then you're still dealing with minimum wage and weekend shifts – exactly what you'd be doing if you hadn't studied for three years."

Three years on from finishing, Curtis now works as a legal library assistant for a government department – a job that did require a degree. The 23-year-old philosophy and criminology graduate is paying off her loan and regrets neither her degree nor the financial investment. 

But her experience typifies the perception problem that dogs Bachelor of Arts degrees and is leading to falling enrolments and cuts at universities in New Zealand and overseas.


Long-time champion of the BA, property investor Sir Bob Jones, remembers a time when arts graduates were revered.

"Back in my teen years in the 50s and 60s, if someone had a BA, you really looked up to them. But there weren't all the bullshit subjects; there weren't all the data-collecting sociology-type bloody nonsense."

But that was a time when any degree was a passport to a job, because only about two per cent of Kiwis had them, compared with 23 per cent today.

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The BA's reputation has been progressively eroded – no-one seems to know exactly how or why. It became seen as the degree for people who didn't know what they wanted to do. The degree for layabouts seeking fewer teaching hours. The degree for lightweights without the smarts to do anything else.

And then came the jokes: "What did the arts graduate say to the science graduate? 'Would you like fries with that?'

In a world of high university fees and high youth unemployment, the acid of negativity seems to be finally etching its mark.

In the face of falling enrolments, Otago University plans to cut about 16 staff in five arts departments. Victoria University is restructuring its language departments, with job losses, after student numbers fell up to 30 per cent in five years. Auckland University arts enrolments have dived 9 per cent since 2010. Nationwide, arts deans are desperately talking up their degrees and reshaping their structure to make graduates more employable.

Lauren Chambers completed a BA in Classics in 2006 and now works as a digital experience manager for ANZ bank - a job that didn't exist when she graduated. PHOTO: SUPPLIED


In many ways, this should be the age of the BA. In a world in which the future of work has never been more uncertain, a broad degree with transferable skills ought to be an easy sell. Forbes Magazine even claimed BAs were the tech world's hottest ticket.

As Massey University demographer and humanities pro vice-chancellor Paul Spoonley points out, research suggests 40-50 per cent of current jobs will not exist in 2026. And today's young people can expect to do 15-17 different jobs over their working life. Which makes vocational degrees risky.

"Some of those jobs, we don't know what they're going to be. A generalist degree which provides you with soft, transferable skills, is actually quite attractive."

Take Lauren Chambers, who graduated with an Otago University BA in Classics in 2006. Like many teens, she had no idea what she wanted to be, so followed her passion.

Teaching was the obvious career, but didn't appeal. She'd always been a keen writer and reader so took a one-year publishing course at Whitireia, immediately got a job editing legislation and then worked on Otago University's website.

A decade on, the 31-year-old works as a digital experience manager at ANZ Bank, using her critical thinking, writing and understanding of culture and human behaviour to analyse the way people use tools online.

She's just paid off her $37,000 student loan and considers it money well spent, although if she were starting again today she might do a double degree, in classics and maths.

"My job now didn't exist 10 years ago, so there's no way I could have planned ahead for it. [...] I've got friends who did very vocational training - teaching, nursing – and now they feel a bit like they've backed themselves into a corner. You've got no options. Whereas I still feel like I can pivot, if I want to."

That's the message being pushed by defenders of the BA. But it's a message that is obviously not getting through.

Massey's BA numbers are holding up, after it restructured the degree to include five core papers – communication, critical thinking, introduction to being a Kiwi citizen, introduction to being a global citizen and a course preparing you for life after graduation. Waikato University enrolments have fallen from a 2013 peak, back to 2010 levels.

Canterbury numbers have plummeted since 2010, but that's skewed by earthquake impacts.

But other universities have been hit hard by changes in government funding priorities and a growing focus on tertiary education as a ticket to work, rather than education for education's sake.

Following a 16 per cent fall in arts enrolments from 2011-2015, Otago University plans to cut 16 full-time staff in music, languages and cultures, history, English and linguistics, anthropology and archaeology.

Otago humanities pro vice-chancellor Tony Ballantyne says falling arts enrolments reflect a "deep shift" towards vocational qualifications. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Otago humanities pro vice-chancellor Tony Ballantyne says while sociology has expanded and geography is stable, most arts subjects have suffered. It's not a uniquely New Zealand problem – even elite American universities, where funding is no issue, are seeing the same "deep shift" in how students value tertiary education.

"There is a movement towards vocational and professional qualifications and the broader understanding that tertiary education should be useful for future employment."

In an age of information overload, Ballantyne argues the core skills of a BA – finding and evaluating multiple information sources and developing a robust argument – have never been more useful. But universities have failed to sell the value of the BA, which is key to understanding society and underpins democracy, he says. 

"The outcomes are better than people imagine. It's a problem about perception at least as much as reality."

That's often not helped by BA grads underselling themselves. Sophie Curtis originally intended to do a library masters, but they restructured the programme so it no longer interested her. She still plans further study.

"I don't want to hand around my CV saying I've got a BA in philosophy. It's kind of the equivalent of saying I larked around for three years." 

New Prime Minister Bill English has a BA in English literature, as well as a degree in economics. PHOTO: KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

At Auckland University, arts enrolments fell 9 per cent from 2011 to 2015 but arts dean Robert Greenberg says 2017 numbers look promising and he's not yet considering cuts. 

Equipped with a degree in South Slavic languages, Greenberg is a cheerleader for following your passion. 

But most young people are also passionate about getting a job. Greenberg reels off the usual superstar BA graduates working at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, boss of Virgin Media in Britain. That's Tom Mockridge – he's 61 and graduated in Bob Jones's age of BA reverence.

"For the first year or two, even three, they do seem to struggle," Greenberg concedes. "But they get their feet on the ground and after five years they actually do really well. It's just they don't immediately get an accounting job and make $90,000."

At Wellington's Victoria University humanities enrolments have increased in the past three years, with growth in criminology, political science and Maori studies. However, its language departments have suffered falls of up to 30 per cent, leading to restructuring.

It's axing seven roles – mostly in European languages – and replacing them with 5 new fulltime equivalent positions. That includes a new translation studies department targeting a new market of students interested in language and culture, but not aiming for language fluency.

The faculty keeps its six language programmes, but with French, German and Italian all losing – or having to share – a lecturer.

Humanities pro vice-chancellor Jennifer Windsor says the changes follow government promotion of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and constrained language funding at secondary schools.

Windsor denies the move is simply bailing out before the inevitable sinking. Arts subjects will always be critical to society, she says.

"An economy is not workable if it's only STEM. If you are an engineer who is building a bridge, you are building it to and through communities. So you're going to need people who understand culture and social interaction and what it means to actually live in communities and to bring communities together."


It's one of the first questions prospective BA students ask Liz Medford: Is it going to get me a job?

The Victoria University careers manager has been dishing out advice for 29 years. She's surveyed 300-odd employers since 1996 and their demands have barely changed – verbal and written communication, analysis, problem-solving, teamwork.

"The skills of a BA are just as useful today as they've ever been."

What has changed is higher fees and parents and students opting for the security of a degree that appears more marketable. But there has to be time for exploration, she says.

Of the 8000 graduate jobs Medford advertised last year, 41 per cent specified no particular degree. Destination surveys show BA grads can end up anywhere: a classics graduate working as an accounts administrator for a car retailer; a French graduate cutting scrub; history graduates as IT project managers and central government HR advisers.

But BA students should consider taking commerce subjects, part-time work and volunteering to make themselves more employable, Medford says.

"It's a combination of their study, along with real-life experience."

Air New Zealand and Hays Recruitment declined to comment on the employability of Arts graduates. Fonterra failed to respond. Others are supportive.

Wellington Chamber of Commerce head John Milford dropped out of university to make money. But he's a fan of BAs and so are the businesses he represents. He has two sons – one with a BA and one with a BSc, both doing jobs they want to do.

"You shouldn't be unhappy at work, because you've got to work for a long time."

Sir Bob Jones always said he wouldn't employ commerce graduates. He wants curious, newspaper readers – preferably history graduates.

"People sometimes say to me, 'How do you get such good people?'. I say 'You look in the wrong place. You look for the wrong qualifications.' A BCom is a certified dullard by his choice of study, in my view."

However, the Wellington and Auckland staff of Robt. Jones Holdings include eight commerce graduates. The accountants don't count, Sir Bob counters – they're specialised.

"There are no commerce grads in there. Well, there might be some girls."

Rod Drury, boss of tech startup Xero, also defends BAs, but advises all students to study some technology – "because it affects everything".

"And then do whatever you're passionate about. Employers are really interested in personality, initiative and passion. That's more important than skills, because you can pick up skills on the job. And the nature of work is changing every few years anyway."

French graduate Casey Apse chose a retail career because it best encompassed what she loved about language learning – exploring different ways of dressing up an idea. PHOTO: JOHN NICHOLSON/FAIRFAX NZ

With a Bachelor of Arts in French with sign language and working as a sales manager at a big box retailer, Casey Apse might sound like a warning against arts degrees. Far from it. The 21-year-old is confident, articulate and doing what she wants to do.

While others thought she'd be a teacher, translator or UN interpreter, she studied languages because they excited her, not in pursuit of a related career. 

Instead, she figured out what fascinated her about language – that you could take an idea and dress it up in different ways so it would be interpreted differently. It's like merchandising, a friend pointed out. While working part time in shops throughout her degree she did a mini study of customer reactions to different ways of inviting them to join a loyalty programme. 

"I found exactly what I was passionate about, how to talk about it, access that part of myself and put it into whatever work I was doing."

So she applied for the sales manager job, got it and loves it. Her employer is sponsoring her to study a bachelor of business and retail next year and the possibilities are endless – occupational health and safety, retail law, logistics.

"No degree is going to guarantee you a job. That would have been different for a different generation but we're in a time now where being qualified and being the right candidate for the job isn't enough. You have to have a point of difference. And you have to be able to argue your case and fight for yourself."

 - Stuff


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