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.

4 thoughts on “Norton vs the Arts lobby, again

  1. Said Andrew:

    To make it clear – I am not arguing against arts degrees as such, though students need to be very careful in choosing their subjects.


    A wink’s as good as a nod to a blind bat…

    I sense that you’re hinting fairly unsubtely at something, and I’m curious to know more. As someone who’s six weeks away from finishing an Arts degree at Unimelb (as well as Commerce, for good measure) I’d like to know which subjects I shouldn’t have chosen.


  2. Personally, I would be happy to see a resurgence in classical studies as a viable university major in today’s world. But if the figures quoted in the article you linked to are unsubstantiated, then I completely agree that they should not have been published in that newspaper. I’m not familiar with educational topics in Australia, but it seems that the university in question should have made their claims patently clear with hard numbers.


  3. You’re probably right to dispute the claim “a liberal arts degree will help you do better in the job market than a narrower degree”, and that those running this line are uninterested in evidence. But I’d like to be one of those people who address an argument you did not make.

    Broad learning is something to be valued in citizens for its own sake, above and beyond its economic impact. We need to value our foxes as well as our hedgehogs.

    In forgetting this in our human capital policies we are once again neglecting the unmeasurable in favour of the measurable.


  4. DD – The curious thing is that academics seem to have internalised the vocational critique, despite the huge numbers of people applying for courses with no direct occupational outcome (arts, science) or leading to professions where supply greatly exceeds demands (visual and performing arts). They feel they need to justify their courses in human capital terms.


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