Originally published in The Guardian on June 27, 2020

by Richard Denniss
[Orinigally publsihed by the Guardian Australia, 24 June 2020]

If conservatives really believed that the most important thing a young person could do was become “job-ready” then why are they so keen for Australia’s best and brightest students to study the works of Shakespeare and Thomas Aquinas, as part of a degree in western civilisation? And why do so many Coalition ministers have arts degrees rather than economics degrees?

The education minister Dan Tehan did an arts degree, and so did ministers Michaelia Cash, Stuart Robert and Marise Payne, to name just a few. In fact, more Liberal frontbenchers have done an arts degree than have studied economics.

For 30 years the language of neoliberalism has been used to kill off the now old-fashioned idea that the purpose of a degree is to broaden the mind, teach analytical skills and the ability to think critically. Neoliberalism made such generic skills seem not only wasteful, but indulgent, compared to the benefits of vocational training that ensured young people were job-ready once they finished their degree.

But while conservatives were using neoliberal language to diminish the value of an arts degree, they themselves were busy studying philosophy than economics. Australia’s self-identified ruling class clearly never believed that their own kids needed to learn maths or science to be job-ready. And from the look of the Coalition front bench, they were spot on.

Unfortunately, I didn’t read a lot of Plato in my economics degree at Newcastle University. Luckily, I did learn how to spot bullshit. Even though neoliberalism tells us studying economics makes kids job-ready, the truth is, the specifics of my degree provided terrible preparation for my first job as an economist. But 30 years later, it does still serve me well – almost every day in fact – when I read the nonsense that passes for public debate in Australia. So, let’s apply some of those generic critical thinking skills to the specifics of what the Coalition has to say about university degrees.

First, if the purpose of a degree is to prepare kids for a job, and kids are expected to have six careers in their lifetime, then what is the point in spending three years learning how to do your first job? Are kids supposed to do six degrees in their lifetime too? Wouldn’t it make more sense to equip graduates with a lot of general skills that make it easier to quickly learn how to do new things, later in life? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to be less obsessed with specialisation?

Second, despite the obvious lack of any link between reading Plato and getting a job, just two years ago the Australian right was apoplectic at the Australian National University’s decision to refuse funding for a degree in western civilisation. Prime minister Scott Morison, two former Liberal prime ministers and countless rightwing commentators ranted about the importance of studying “the western canon”. When was the last time you saw a job ad for a “western canonist”?

Third, the government recently announced its desire to drive up the cost of an arts degree and reduce the cost of degrees that help people get jobs in growing sectors like agricultural science. Because my degree taught me not just to think critically, but to count, I know they can’t mean that either. According to the data available to the government – and to the rest of us – on the ABS website, employment in agriculture has been steadily shrinking as both a proportion of the Australian workforce and in absolute terms. And census data makes clear that it’s not just low-skilled jobs that are disappearing from agriculture, but high-skilled technical jobs as well.

The government seems determined to discourage kids from studying the arts and encourage them to study maths and science. So, what’s going on?

Only a small percentage of the kids I started school with finished year 12, and only a tiny percentage went on to university. I enrolled in an accounting degree. I was good at maths and, having never had a friend or family member who had been to uni, I accepted the advice of my career councillor.

I hated accounting, but did do well in first year economics so I stuck with it. I would end up doing lots of subjects on “the history of economic thought” which I was too naive to know was philosophy. At the same time, I wasted my money – and taxpayers’ money – learning how to use a word processor called “WordPerfect” and a spreadsheet program called “Lotus”, neither of which interacted with a mouse because the mouse was yet to be invented.

The “training” I got to make me “job-ready” was wasted before my degree was even finished. The philosophy I accidentally studied serves me well every single day. My degree taught me to think critically, write clearly and spot bullshit from a mile away.

The Coalition front bench know those are valuable skills, and the proponents of the western civilisation degree know that as well. When enrolments are deliberately curtailed by changes in government policy, it’s likely that not just the number of people learning to think critically and communicate clearly will be reduced, but the background of those learning those skills could change radically as well.

And if my economics degree taught me anything it’s that the rarer a skill is, the greater the returns that accrue to those with that skill. That would have to be good for those who have already acquired the valuable, general skills acquired in an arts degree.

Richard Denniss is chief economist at independent thinktank The Australia Institute

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