Norton vs the Arts lobby, again

University of Sydney Dean of Arts Stephen Garton is again spruiking his courses under the guise of news. A story in the SMH, without giving a source or actual statistics, claims that that ‘classical studies – and the humanities in general – are booming’. Garton is reported as saying that:

students had returned to general degrees as they realised the changing nature of the job market. The dotcom boom had helped the humanities, he said, as when it ended it taught students a narrow expertise could be redundant by the time they graduated.

It’s true that commencing enrolments in ‘society and culture’ (which includes arts, but also law) were up between 2004 and 2005, though three vocational fields (architecture, health, and education) were up by more in percentage terms. But claims that student perceptions have greatly changed should be treated with scepticism. In reality, the ‘market share’ amongst disciplines is quite stable over time. Since 2001, arts share has fluctuated over the range 25.46% to 26.48%, with the latest share at 25.82%. In absolute numbers, they are down more than 4,000 on the peak year of 2003. It’s possible that particular universities are seeing an upsurge in applications, but there is no general change in thinking apparent in these figures.

Nor is there any evidence that acquring an arts degree, as opposed to some other degree, gives you generic skills that enable you to adapt better to the ‘changing nature of the labour market’ – though having an arts degree is more likely to mean that you will have to rely on generic skills rather than on the specific content of your course. The book How College Affects Students surveys the American higher education research literature, and struggles to find consistent differences between student majors in development of generic skills, except that quantitative courses tend to increase quantitative competencies (as one would hope). But the book says that the ‘evidence is less clear-cut for the acquisition of verbal skills’, with one study finding that social science courses improved them, but five others not replicating the finding (p.91). Similarly, the evidence on acquiring critical thinking skills is also inconsistent (p.175). It’s not that there aren’t usually improvements in these skills during the university years; it’s just that there aren’t reliable differences between disciplines.

When asked at the end of their course about their acquisition of generic skills, with questions about analytic, problem-solving and written communication skills, ‘society and culture’ graduates don’t stand out as having acquired unusually high confidence in their abilities. As reported in Graduate Course Experience 2005, 67.2% of bachelor degree graduates agreed that their generic skills had been improved (that is, on average they picked one of the top two points on a five-point scale). However, graduates in the sciences, engineering, and agricultural and environmental courses all showed slightly higher agreement. The lowest agreement was among architecture students, on 59.2%.

I have raised issues like this before, to which the Arts lobby has replied with rebuttals of arguments I did not make, anecdotes and methodological points: anything but social scientific evidence for their case. To make it clear – I am not arguing against arts degrees as such, though students need to be very careful in choosing their subjects. But I do think that universities should not make unsubstantiated claims about their services, and if they do newspapers should not simply report them without contrary comment.