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Why business prizes humanities degrees



4 May 2015

It's an all too common claim that a humanities education is well past its sell-by date.

In the United States, the Republican Senator for Florida Marco Rubio has questioned the point of studying Greek philosophy, "because the market for Greek philosophers is tight". In Texas, they have passed legislation to encourage students to major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects instead of those in the liberal arts. In Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs suggested as recently as last year that taxpayers shouldn't fund arts degrees at all. These are extreme examples but they are emblematic of the negativity that can downplay the contribution of arts graduates, across a spectrum of economic activities.

In the humanities, we defend ourselves by pointing out the dangers of reducing university education to little more than training for future employment. Anyone who wants to live in a dynamic and innovative society should have sympathy with this argument. Yet, it does not address the legitimate aspirations of students for a successful and fulfilling career after graduation.

Anyone who has ever been behind a humanities department information desk at a university open day can attest that career prospects are understandably a prime concern for students and their parents. With the prospect of rising costs in higher education, these concerns are only going to grow. Universities will be called upon to put energy and resources into making the case for why Australia needs arts graduates more than ever. This does not necessarily mean humanities education needs to be radically reformed but that it gets better at explaining to employers the vital skills it helps students acquire.

Arts graduates have characteristics traditionally prized by the Australian corporate and public sectors. At the University of Sydney the percentage of arts students from the highest performing ATAR group matches or exceeds those in the science and business degrees. My own academic discipline, classics, might seem as about as far removed from the needs of a modern commercial enterprise as it is possible to get.

Yet when I taught at university in the United Kingdom, my students were routinely hired by investment banks, management consultancies, accountancy firms and government agencies not because of their ability to translate Latin or ancient Greek, but because these employers coveted their analytical, critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills.

It's for these reasons that faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Sydney has partnered with organisations such as Westpac, KPMG, Telstra and Allianz to create paid placement programs for bright and enterprising students. By coupling these placements with professional skills workshops on our campus, the program readies arts students for the workplace and demonstrates to employers the breadth of skills held by our graduates.

Surprisingly, it is technology that has strengthened the case for employing arts graduates. Technological innovation is now so fast-moving that it is difficult to predict the skills executives will require in five, let alone 10 years. This creates problems for vocational degrees in keeping up with these ever-changing requirements. Yet, the ability to synthesise large quantities of diffuse data into a clear, economical and effective argument - a key feature of an arts degree - will never go out of fashion.

The influential Second Carnegie Report on Business Education, published in 2011, made this clear. The dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto said the study "effectively dismantles the argument that there is no time or need for the liberal arts in modern business education. The authors correctly point out that the world needs business leaders who can manage complexity, think creatively and leverage the insights of others - skills honed far more explicitly in the liberal arts than in business".

That's why arts graduates are greatly overrepresented in the senior ranks of corporate Australia. Take for example Westpac, where Brian Hartzer, a history graduate has recently replaced Gail Kelly, who studied classics, as CEO. It is the all-important 'soft skills' that are essential for effective senior leadership - particularly those around effective communication and empathy. These are core attributes of an arts degree.

The challenge now for Australia's universities and employers is to forge effective partnerships with one another to ensure that young talented Australian arts students are given the opportunities for the careers that they deserve.


Associate Professor Richard Miles directs the ArtSS Career-Ready Program at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.


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