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What kind of work do we want our society to do?

The big news in Australian higher education this week has been the government’s plan to change course fees in a way supposed to encourage students to take up courses thought to have better employment prospects. Commentators have criticised the policy from a number of angles: Andrew Norton (cited in the article linked above) suspects that the policy will have only marginal impact since students generally choose courses according to their interests and the income-contingent loan scheme that exists in Australia means that students do not think much about the price of degrees anyway; others cite “business leaders” who think that humanities skills are in fact fairly useful; still others have pointed out a perverse incentive for universities to enrol humanities students since higher fees for relatively cheap courses make them more financially appealling than lower fees for more expensive courses in engineering and healthcare; and of course humanists themselves like to think the humanities important to society independently of whether or not anyone wants to employ them.

The most interesting aspect of the controversy from the point of view of this blog, however, is the variety of opinion on what the job market is actually like. The Conversation has David Peetz asking can government actually predict the jobs for the future?; but protagonists in the debate don’t even seem have a good idea of where the jobs are now. Elsewhere The Conversation has a detailed statistical analysis from Peter Hurley arguing that arts and humanities graduates actually have better employment outcomes than science and mathematics graduates (albeit well short of engineering and healthcare graduates). Over at the Australian Computer Society, a recent newsletter had one article asserting “areas like IT continu[e] to grow as industry expansion vacuums up new skilled graduates faster than universities can produce them” while the next opens with “There‚Äôs more trouble to come for the global IT industry with startups joining the big tech vendors in laying off staff”.

Reading Peetz’ critique, I recalled criticism often levelled at governments that try to “pick winners“, as the government might be seen to be doing in coaxing students into science and technology disciplines rather than arts and humanities ones. Peetz observes in the commentary on the article that the job market already sends a signal to graduates in the form of graduate salaries: according to Hurley’s statistics, medical professionals, engineers, and lawyers earn significantly more than humanists or scientists, so why does the government need to add its own price signal based on some vague idea that science and technology is important? (Or, for that matter, a different price signal that might satisfy its critics with some vague idea that the arts and humanities are important.)

Of course this assumes that the job market itself knows what it is doing. Commentators on jobs of the future might have vague ideas that science and technology are important, or that art and the humanities are important, according to their persuasion, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into organisations wanting to hire astronomers, biologists, chemists, and so on, or anyone wanting to pay for streaming media or theatre tickets. Nor does anyone pay for nice-sounding skills like “critical thinking” and “problem solving” lauded by both sorts of commentators but rarely on display in public discourse.

In this vein, one of the more interesting comments that I saw was Clifford Heath’s comment on Hurley’s article: Heath suggests “the ability of a society to invest so much of its human resources into the non-essential activities … is an indication of its prosperity and stability”. I’m unsure how to interpret the rest of his comment but the important observation from my point of view is that we can afford to expend resources on art, history, and so on, not to mention sciences like astronomy and palaeontology, precisely because we are a successful and prosperous society with wealth to spare. Only very poor societies, in fact, need to expend all of their resources scrambling for a living.

Of course this doesn’t by itself answer the question of how much of our resources we ought to spend on art and science, but it does offer a different perspective on the issue than humanists groping for economic relevance and their critics failing to find any. From this perspective, arguing about what discipline has the greater job prospects and how to best satisfy the jobs market is arse-backwards: the real question is what kind of work do we want our society to be doing?

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