Higher fees for humanities? Data undercuts argument against arts degrees

New research has highlighted flaws in the government's attack on arts degrees.

New research has highlighted flaws in the government's attack on arts degrees. Photo: Getty

Arts graduates are getting higher-paying jobs and quicker entry to the workforce than some STEM subjects, research has revealed.

In direct contradiction to the federal government’s justification for its announcement on Friday that it would raise the cost of humanities, data from the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching shows arts students are more likely to get jobs than maths and science graduates.

Three years after finishing, humanities graduates are employed at a rate of 91.1 per cent, above both science and maths – which have a 90.1 per cent rate of overall employment, the data shows. And 95.8 per cent of law graduates on average gain employment.

The national average of graduates employed within three years is 93 per cent.

Undergraduates who study physiotherapy and occupational therapy have the highest employment, 98.8 per cent, while creative arts has the worst 89.3 per cent.

The Coalition government plans to hike fees for humanities degrees. Photo: Getty

Those coming out of our higher educational institutions with an arts degree also make more money.

Humanities and social science graduates earn on average $70,300, while their maths and science peers get $68,900.

Policy fellow at Victoria University Peter Hurley said this data shows a direct contradiction to what the government is putting forward.

It’s a contradiction and that’s what those figures show. Not all STEM subjects have above average employment outcomes,” he said.

“If you look at peoples areas of study and three years later that’s what comes up. I think there’s a simplistic view about the link between education and the workplace.”

Arts degrees are everywhere

Two-thirds of chief executives of ASX200 listed companies have degrees in humanities, 62 per cent of government senior executives and 66 per cent of federal parliamentarians, according to data from the Academy of Social Services in Australia.

In fact, the degree can be useful in landing you in the highest office in the land – with 10 of Australia’s Prime Ministers holding a Bachelor of Arts.

Laura Phillips studied arts at the University of Melbourne between 2010-2012, majoring in media communications and art history – she now has a flourishing career in property.

On exchange she launched an international magazine.

Laura Phillips studied arts – and that led to founding a magazine. Photo: Tess Kelly

“Whilst in Sweden I was able to apply my skills in publishing and journalism with my passion for art and design to start Mr. Wolf Magazine, a print publication that was sold in 25 countries worldwide the year after I graduated, including at the Tate Modern in London and Palais de Tokyo in Paris,” she said.

“One-year post-graduation I sought to continue my interest in the built environment by working in residential property development.

I’ve found the development of creative, critical thinking that began in my arts degree has allowed me to excel in my career.”

Concerns have been raised by the National Tertiary Education Union that the price hike will result in students turning away from education.

“The future of Australian research and learning demands a substantial funding package, not a cynical attempt to gouge certain cohorts of students for more money,” NTEU president Dr Alison Barnes said on Friday.

Dylan Tucker studied a Bachelor of Strategic Communications, graduating from La Trobe University in 2018.

He paired it with a Diploma of Languages and now works remotely for a London based PR firm, with French-speaking clients.

Dylan Tucker’s Strategic Communications degree opened the road to a career.

“In addition to a communications degree, my current role requires working with French-speaking clients, making my French qualification key to my employability,” Mr Tucker said.

Had my degree cost doubled, I think I still would have gone to university, but I would not have completed a second qualification.

“I think many of the negative consequences from these changes will come to light in the years after the degree when a large amount of personal debt is likely to stifle the ability for young professionals to save, apply for loans to start a business, buy a house and so on.”

So what about the creative arts? 

Long the butt of social ridicule, creative arts degrees have the lowest employment rate. But for many, studying fine arts isn’t necessarily about getting a job afterwards.

“Initially, I had put my first degree aside as a great experience but one that did not add anything to my employability,” said Rosa Coyle-Hayward, who studied photography before doing a BA in the music industry.

That being said, I believe that learning about culture and society always has a positive impact on anyone.”

Ms Coyle-Hayward now has a job in the notoriously difficult field, working for record label Wantok Musik.

Rosa Coyle-Hayward found her groove working for Wantok Musik.

“I worry that shutting out people from less stable financial backgrounds from these degrees will further be disadvantaged in getting jobs because they will not make these connections at university or learn the skills to help them get ahead,” she said.

To recognise the importance of doing an arts degree, we don’t need to look very far, Ms Coyle-Hayward said.

“Look at the way that books, magazines, movies, art, music is keeping a large contingent of the world’s population sane during sweeping lockdowns,” she said.

“In an increasingly internationalised world, humanities subjects such as sociology, history, international studies, journalism and media studies are critical to help people to understand each other.”

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