Does your child want to do a BA? Isn’t that a Bachelor of Bugger All? Don’t be frightened that he/she will be left on the scrapheap of employment.

The reality couldn’t be more different, says Victoria University’s Stuart Brock. Three years after completing their degrees, only one per cent of Victoria’s humanities and social sciences graduates are on any kind of benefit, let alone unemployment. It’s an urban myth that an arts degree leads nowhere.

Whilst there are jobs that do need specific technical degrees, “they can be counted on two hands”, says Brock.

The new reality

Young people will have many different jobs over their 40-year working lives, says Massey University’s Richard Shaw. This is the new reality, and for that they’ll need transferable skills and the ability to make sense of complex situations, think critically, problem solve and communicate.

In a changing world where many jobs will be superseded by technology, all of these transferable skills that will be in demand in the future can be honed in an arts degree.

“I would never want to advocate that a BA is the only degree where you get all these important skills to navigate a future in society,” says Brock.

“A science degree is great. A commerce degree is great. But I think an arts degree gives you something unique. It gives you creative skills you might not get in other degrees.”

He says research into what employers want from new recruits shows that the  number-one-rated competency is communication skills, and especially verbal communication skills. A BA is for that reason what the labour market is looking for.

In the arts, students must discuss ideas, critique, and write essays. Other degrees have much more of a focus on exams and tests, he says. “Students who have a phobia of essays choose other degrees.”

World research concurs

Research from around the world backs up the humanities and social science academics’ views. Brock, for example, quotes research by the University of Oxford’s Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne on the future of employment. These academics have predicted that around 47 per cent of jobs in the United States are at risk from technology.

That was echoed by the New Zealand Labour Government’s Future of Work Commission report, which predicted 46 per cent of our jobs are also under the same cloud over the next 10 to 15 years.

Likewise, Shaw says the truth about the real value of BAs is just beginning to be heard. He points to the University of Phoenix’s Institute for the Future, which says critical attributes for the employees and leaders of the future are the ability to: adapt to new ways of thinking; make sense of complex situations; think around an issue from different points of view; and be at ease in cross-cultural contexts.

“It is little surprise, then, that a British Council survey released recently revealed that over 50 per cent of 1,700 leaders in private and public organisations in 30 countries have degrees in the social sciences and humanities,” says Shaw.

He adds that the view that employers want arts graduates isn’t just a fantasy dreamed up by academics. “It is what job brokers and graduates in the real world, both at home and abroad, are telling anyone who cares to listen.”

When Massey surveyed employers, 91 per cent said a BA was directly relevant to their needs. Those employers valued the critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills that BA graduates possess, says Shaw.

AUT’s Paul Moon singles out history as an example. Without the study of history, the world would be repeating the same mistakes over and over again, he says. “History shows what does and doesn’t work and what has been tried before. If you are not aware how to use that information, you can’t make informed decisions.”

What’s more, we  live in an age where there is too much information and we can’t absorb it all.

“You can’t ignore that information,” says Moon.

“The ability to process information is the biggest currency we deal with,” he says. Students studying the arts learn to discern the quality of information; they learn how to reference it.

All sorts of organisations need people who can process information, says Moon. “An arts degree provides that, which other degrees don’t.”

There are, of course, a wide range of degrees that come under the banner of arts and humanities. Even so, they all teach critical thinking, says Brock. Whilst a philosophy degree teaches that critical thinking directly, the methods used in other arts degree teaching impart the same skills indirectly.

Moon cites policy roles for anyone who thinks that gaining an arts degree is “generic time wasting”. “From a practical point of view, if you don’t have people with the skills taught in arts degrees, you won’t have people able to produce policy. Without that, you almost cripple projects.”

Not everything should be measured by number crunching, says Moon. “We are living, social beings.”

Part of a healthy democracy

The BA also has a role to play in the nation’s broader wellbeing, says Shaw. People who have studied politics, philosophy, religion, history, sociology, anthropology, languages, literature or media studies, to name a few, are needed in a healthy democracy to challenge received wisdoms and sacred cows.

“You can’t have a functioning, vibrant, democratic society without the kind of environment the BA provides,” says Shaw.

Moon also argues that subjects such as history are important for understanding your identity. “History is esoteric. The more you know about history, the more intricate and robust your identity becomes.”

And Moon’s parting shot to engineers, architects and scientists who might think there is no value in an arts degree? He asks who produces all the movies and the YouTube videos that they lap up as entertainment.

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