Not All Students Graduate Equal
Why do we think that some degrees are more valuable than others?
by Jake Roslin
"So, what subject are you doing?"
The eternal second question - after name, before where are you from. The answer - unless you’ve met a previously unknown course mate - is received via the questioner’s own academic knowledge and cultural baggage.
So I'm genuinely impressed when I meet a medic, marine biologist or mathematician as they appear to be doing something definably useful to society. They are saving lives, saving the planet, or, presumably, making sense of the universe. But should I be so reticent to confess to them I’m ‘only’ studying an arts subject?
It's no secret the worth of arts and humanities degrees is being questioned. Not just the likes of English Literature and History but even modern languages are seen as slightly frivolous in a post-Brexit world.
Then there's those non-vocational social sciences: Politics, Philosophy, Sociology. The ones without right and wrong answers that cause arguments in pubs. But they also make you think about things you’d never even considered thinking about, appreciate alternative viewpoints, improve your critical thinking.
In the 20th century first liberal arts then humanities mushroomed, largely due to the post-war expansion of universities. Institutions with a more quarrelsome air, like Essex, Warwick and Sussex, with appropriately austere concrete architecture questioned the role of a university and where they should recruit their students from. Add the emerging new criticism: Marxism, feminism, structuralism, post-modernism and over a few decades the possibilities of university study seemed to encompass the history of the world, whoever’s history it was, of any society extinct, extent and potential.
It's perhaps no coincidence that period also coincided with the peak of student political involvement. After the Paris Uprisings of 1968 students thought they could change the world. This has drastically changed. Campus political engagement is pitiful with a 5% turnout at the last AUSA elections.
Ubiquitous social media - that permanent store of opinion - means undergraduates are less likely than ever to deviate even slightly from what we expect future employers to want us to be. Even the new architecture of the 21st-century university is corporately staid not experimentally futuristic.
So perhaps like Brexit, life doesn’t necessarily keep getting better. Maybe humans cannot resist the urge to change even when it might just be regressive. It is not the value of arts put the perception of the same which is being eroded with the necessary but excessive promotion on STEM and other vocational subjects. Is there really an insatiable demand for scientists, engineers, IT and managers? Must economic growth be the sole metric of a happy population? Is a rich and sensible but culture deprived society really what we want?
Courses in our own Divinity History & Philosophy department are being cut back. Similar departments at other universities have closed as have niche subjects like Scottish and Celtic Studies. When it is drummed into you at school you will have a precarious career unless you work with facts or numbers you start to believe it. As more specialist ‘A’ levels like History of Art are abolished, naturally, demand for degrees in the same will fall.
Why are governments like ours behind this? Why has there been a sea change of opinion since the late 20th century, when social studies and critical thinking was deemed to be where it was at? Why have politicians decided we are doomed unless there are more and more graduates who know about a lesser and lesser number of things?
The problem may be in the metaphorical rocking of the boat. Courses in the arts and humanities inherently teach us to question. To say “what if”. To look at how things might be, not just at how they are. If there are to be too many graduates for graduate jobs, the last thing a government wants is too many critical thinkers. And if you can hover a five-figure student loan debt over potential undergraduates, that’s a significant push towards a predictable career in engineering or accountancy over anything creative, or even teaching or nursing.
I’m not criticising those of you who had long known you needed to become a lawyer, chemist or engineer. We will always need you. What we cannot allow is pressure on those who might naturally be successful arts and humanities students to do something practical instead. All science and no art make for a very dull, conformist world which also begins to lose its connection with the great thinkers and talents of the past.
The new world may be more predictable and maybe everyone will have more money, but we’ll be poorer in other ways. When both choices of degree and the experience of the university itself become wholly synonymous with stable graduate employment it really is time to worry.