On Friday, the federal government announced it was going to drastically change how it funds tertiary education. Effectively, they want to raise the price of humanities and arts subject areas to redirect students into more “job-relevant” sectors. There’s many reasons this is very bad. First and fundamentally, there’s the ethical and democratic issue of pricing people out of tertiary education. This move effectively means individuals will now pay practically half of their tertiary education out of their own pocket (via HECS), a crucial tipping point in consecutive governments’ slow destruction of free, or at least affordable, tertiary education—a basic feature of any functioning democracy. Beyond this fundamental attack on a bedrock of our society, it’s also bad policy for more straightforward economic and job-creation reasons. It won’t create the increased skills in the desired areas anyway (a grade 12 student doing English and History isn’t suddenly going to enrol in Medicine because its more comparably priced); the identified job areas, such as agriculture, don’t actually align with the skill areas the government itself has identified as lacking (which are themselves humanities areas); humanities students are crucial for subsidising the far more expensive science and engineering and medical degrees, so reducing enrolments in these areas will negatively impact the very disciplines the government claims to be supporting. The whole thing is a mess for a whole range of reasons, frankly.
Other people will write smarter things about the economic failings of this plan, but here I want to particularly discuss the government’s focus on ‘job-relevant’ educations versus, implicitly, ‘job-irrelevant’ educations (such as the education minister’s own Arts degree supposedly). This falls within a broader rhetoric espoused by governments and repeated by students, parents, media, and university management and marketing alike that universities must increasingly focus on producing ‘job ready’ graduates with ‘job ready’ skills. Not that artsy fartsy theory and history and critical stuff but the hard skills that you actually need in the work force. (The skills that, historically, was the responsibility of the companies to invest in so as to teach graduate hires, but which companies have now convinced universities is their responsibility, that graduates should be perfectly formed workers and able to slip into their company-specific pipelines).
Here’s the short version of this post: Job-readiness is a lie that only works to produce graduates less capable of dealing with the world they find themselves in, less well-rounded as human beings, less able to think on their feet, and less employable.
There is a valid argument to be made that we should defend arts and humanities education not because they are good for getting a job, but because they are good for improving us as humans, as culture, and as a society. Arts and humanities make us more compassionate and better able to understand the systems of power that structure the world. All of this is true. But what is also true is that arts and humanities degrees are just as useful for getting a job as an engineering, science, or maths degree. The only different is an arts or humanities degree will arguably also make you less likely to vote for a conservative political party (all the sneaky gender studies and queer theory and anti-colonial theory!). By exposing the fact that job-readiness is a narrow lie that ignores all the different ways arts and humanities degrees prepare students for the future, we reveal just how ideologically driven the right’s attacks on the arts and humanities really are. It has nothing to do with ensuring people end up in degrees relevant to jobs.
So why is it harder to claim that a bachelor of arts prepares you for a job than, say, a bachelor of medicine or engineering or science when graduates are just as likely to find employment soon after graduation? To answer this question I first want to outline my own messy story of how I got from grade 12 to my current position:
I’m a media industries researcher and critic. My job includes lots of reading, writing, thinking, and investigating how the videogame industry works, and also teaching aspiring young entrants of the ‘entertainment industries’ how to navigate the future they have in store (so I have thought a lot about the relationship of tertiary education and job-readiness; my students think about it even more). I like to think that in this role I’ve made some sort of modest contribution to society. I’ve prepared reports for governments, spoken to politicians and NGOs and others about how to support and grow the videogame industry, been involved in the education of game developers who now have jobs on the other side of the world, written essays and books that people have told me have really helped them understand different things better. I live a pretty comfortable and reliable life in this occupation, current volatility in the Australian university sector aside. According to this tool on the ABC I am in the top 20% of income earners in the country, which is shocking for a number of reasons. But clearly I ended up someplace alright after my university education.
So what education got me here? I didn’t study ‘a bachelor of being a videogame industry researcher who also teachers entertainment industries people’ (this is funnier if you say it in a Zoolander voice). I had no grand plan to do what I currently do. I left high school in 2003 with an OP of 4. I don’t know what that translates to in the other states but it’s pretty good in Queensland. After a year’s exchange in Japan, I enrolled in a dual Bachelor of IT/Bachelor of Multimedia in 2005 at Griffith University, with the intent of majoring in Interactive Entertainment. I really liked videogames so it made sense that I would want to become a videogame developer. I was very wrong, like most game development students are. My initially good grades plummeted in my second year for a number of reasons (belated teen melodrama finally hitting in my early 20s and Centrelink being the main two). I decided to instead go to University of Queensland and enrol in a Bachelor of Arts. I had absolutely no idea sort of career I was looking for now, but I thought I’d figure that out later. I started the degree with no majors declared. I did three electives: History of Pop Music from Elvis to Madonna, Creative Writing: Poetry, and Introduction to Music Theory. I don’t think my parents were particularly thrilled about this decision, which is very understandable; ‘IT’ has a lot more jobs, one assumes, than knowing how to write a haiku or list Jimi Hendrix songs.
Eventually, I remembered I used to like creative writing a lot so I chose a Writing major. It was only offered as a single major so I chose Advanced Japanese for my other major. Why not? I already had some experience. I had some loose plans to, after the degree, go be an English teacher in Japan. That fell through, and I spent a year working at Woolworths full time, not sure what to do with my life. I had a crack at becoming a novelist and poet, made some tiny amounts of money somehow from an award or two (no you cannot read the poems I wrote). Then I discovered games journalism and criticism. See, towards the end of my arts degree, I did some film and cultural studies units as part of my Writing major, and was introduced to the worlds of critical theory and pop culture analysis. I realised then that perhaps my interest in videogames wasn’t wanting to make them but wanting to analyse and understand them. And so I returned to University of Queensland to do an Honours thesis in game studies, and then a PhD at RMIT University in Melbourne. At the same time, I was doing more and more games journalism as a freelancer, using the writing skills I picked up from my creative writing units. I started being sent to press events and international conferences and began building a name for myself as a game critic.
These parallel lives of public-facing critical writing and academic research aligned in ways I couldn’t have predicted to, first, get me a full-time job teaching into a game design program at SAE college and, more recently, my current full-time research position at QUT.
My undergraduate arts degree taught me how to write, think, and communicate. My journalism work never fully sustained me, but gave me the industry contacts and insights and trust that have uniquely positioned me to do my current work. That is how I became a media industries researcher and critic. About 50% luck and about 50% repurposing skills I’d learned in different contexts.
I never could have planned this career trajectory. It’s a complex long-winded story that would never look sexy on a university’s billboard. It’s not catchy the way “Bob studied engineering and now he is an engineer” is catchy.
Here’s the catch though: my story, while unique and weird and all over the place, is not dissimilar to the vast majority of people out there who have a job that required a tertiary education. Very few people are fortunate enough to have done a degree with the same title as their current occupation. Most people instead do a more generalised degree and then, through a combination of figuring out what they actually love and sheer luck of encountering the right idea or person at the right time, end up in some sort of career. They take skills from one context, and apply them in another. A career that makes total sense, in hindsight, but one that would be totally unpredictable if you map it out beforehand.
This unpredictability is true for more and more people as the future of work is fragmenting and getting weird in all sorts of ways under late capitalism. You’ve seen the headlines. Most current students will work in jobs that don’t exist yet. Most people will work X different careers throughout their lifetime. The norm, increasingly, is unpredictability, flexibility, adaptation, reskilling. If you are entering university next year, it is very unlikely the job you do for the rest of your life will be the one your degree is named after.
This is not a very reassuring thing for students coming out of high school to hear, nor for their parents! With all the pressures of high school and encroaching adulthood, students enrolling into universities, very understandably, want some sense of reassurance or certainty that if they commit 3-4 years to studying this degree, racking up debt, that in the end it will be worth it in some vocational way. Every open day the most common question you hear from parents is ‘so what are the possible jobs out of this degree?’. As humanities academics, we can make all the claims we want about the intrinsic value of education (true) and that universities aren’t job factories (also true), but that is no reassurance to a middle- or working-class kid facing a large debt and an increasingly weakened welfare state who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
After consecutive governments have in one way or another forced Australian universities to act less like public institutions and more like private businesses, universities need student enrolments to continue to exist. Thus, universities respond to the understandable anxieties of parents and students with reassuring claims of how this or that degree will make them ‘job ready’. My own university went a step further and made ‘university for the real world’ its marketing slogan; implicitly suggesting the other big university down the river, University of Queensland, is not for the real world. We don’t have an Arts Faculty, we have a ‘Creative Industries’ Faculty. It just sounds a bit more jobsy, you know?
Thus, ‘Job-readiness’ is not a set of skills or a pedagogical approach. ‘Job-readiness’ is a marketing strategy to downplay the anxieties of students and parents so as to attract their enrolment. ‘Job-readiness’ sets incorrect, reductive expectations of just how a university education will or will not lead students to a career. ‘Job-readiness’ forces pedagogical changes where students write ‘industry reports’ instead of ‘research essays’ and read industry news instead of academic literature and, thus, get the short-term reassurance they are learning ‘real skills’ while they miss out of the deeply resilient, critical, and transferrable skills that an academic career is meant to prioritise. A fixation on job-readiness produces students who are not ready for the realities of work. (More crudely: job-readiness focuses on the skills you could learn from Youtube at the expense of the skills you could not learn from Youtube).
As my own story above shows, the forms of education that produce skills that are the most resilient, adaptive, and flexible are those that are least able to be squished into a rhetoric of job-readiness, but this does not mean they don’t prepare students for jobs. It just means the jobs they do prepare students for can’t be, in good faith, determined beforehand. Students of arts and humanities degrees might end up as diplomats, researchers, public servants, translators, teachers, journalists, marketers, office managers, producers, librarians, curators, actors, politicians, designers, god knows what else. Who’s to say? And, geez, how many people actually want to end up in the job that 17-year-old them blurted out to the job counsellor anyway? (They might also end up as a barista or supermarket cashier with a particularly good knowledge of Japanese cinema, which should also be entirely acceptable. When did we decide occupation was the only way in which we’d define success of fulfillment in life?)
Plenty of educations do give you the physical skills of a specific occupation, and these are great and important and necessary for a range of sectors. TAFE is particularly valuable for this, which the current government gutted late last year. That’s great if you know exactly what you want to do, and that you’ll be able to keep doing it for a long time. The world will always need plumbers and carpenters and electricians (careers that deserve much more respect than they actually get). But many recent high school graduates have no idea what they want to do, and that isn’t a problem. University generally, and the humanities and arts specifically, provide the time and resources and permission to figure out who you actually want to be and what you actually want to do. You won’t learn how to ‘build bridges’ but you will learn how to ‘think critically’. ‘Critical thinker’ doesn’t sound like it pays as well as ‘Bridge builder’ but it is the foundation needed in a huge range of sectors in a huge range of occupations—including those that don’t exist yet.
By making arts and humanities educations more expensive, the government is not filtering students into more job-relevant areas. They are pricing students out of the opportunity to figure out who they are, what kind of person they want to be, and to develop a broad range of resilient skills that will make them ‘ready’ for a wide range of jobs that aren’t fortunate enough to have entire degrees named after them. Along with their censoring of peer reviewed humanities research projects, their attempts to Trojan horse right-wing ideals into the humanities classroom via the Ramsay Center, their deliberate negligence towards the university sector’s woes during covid which will cost 30,000 jobs, the government are, quite deliberately, designing a less critical, less compassionate, and more cruel picture of Australia’s future, and ensuring that more Australians won’t actually be ready for the jobs awaiting them when they get there.