Sunday, June 08, 2014

Sunday Essay – John Roskam and the value of an Arts degree

I do not know John Roskam. I have never met him. He has been, and I quote from his bio, “Executive Director of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs since 2004. Before joining the IPA he taught political theory at the University of Melbourne.”

On 6 June, he wrote a remarkably silly  piece in the Australian Financial Review entitled Taxpayers Shouldn't Fund Arts Degrees. That’s not quite the title that appears in the Review, this appears to be “Arts degrees are welfare in reverse”,  but I’m assuming the article is the same. It is, I suppose, the type of cant that I would expect from a political theorist of left or right. In saying that, I accept that the piece was meant to be provocative. 

In responding, I want to focus on one thing, my own experience as a recruiter. What do I expect from someone with an Arts degree?

Most importantly, I expect them to be literate and articulate. Obviously I test that, You can no longer assume that anybody with a degree has either quality. In a world of mass education and short knowledge tests where most kids have to work while studying, literacy in particular can no longer be assumed. Writing, the capacity to write, remains important. If you can’t write, if you can’t express yourself, then there is a problem. 

Next, I expect them to be able to talk about something that they have studied. I don’t care whether it’s Pope, Wright or Cicero, philosophy or history or English literature. The point is what have they learned, how have they approached it.  Do they have the learning skills to address themselves to the job that I want them to do?

Then I look for curiosity, the capacity to think outside the box. I would expect this from Arts graduates, although the best in all fields of study will have the same characteristics.

My comments to this point have focused focused on Arts as a broad, generalist qualification. Obviously, if you want someone with specialist skills for a particular field such as law or accountancy you will focus in that area. With law firms, a key question is the capacity of the person to generate immediate billable hours. if  I give you the work, can you do it? However, beyond that point the type of skills and abilities one expects of an Arts graduate are still important.

Law firms depend on their rain makers, the people who bring in the work. They depend, too, on the ability of their people to find new solutions to legal problems. This requires a capacity to think. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the first double degrees in Australia were in Arts/Law. Both field require different disciplines. The power lies in the combination.

Mr Roskam’s problem, as I see it, lies in the need of the political theorist to simplify, to ensure that things fit within his model. Marxism had similar problems, As I said, I thought that it was a remarkably silly piece.  I stand to be corrected in debate. Am I wrong?           


Winton Bates said...


Rod said...

Arts degrees should not be for everyone that leaves school and doesn't know what to do with themselves. I think that is was a lot of Arts degrees are now.

I don't know how many people I went to uni with that never used their arts degrees after they graduated. Maybe some of the techniques in learning may have been of some use but otherwise it appeared to me to be a waste of several good years.

Of course this also happens with other degrees such as law and science... but they are regarded as 'harder' and therefore not prone to the same volume of lost school leavers. The 'harder' courses also have more frequent drop outs... from uni completely... or to the arts degrees.

There is a very important place for the Arts. But it should not be the default position school leavers should take to tide them over until they actually figure our what they want to do.

just my opinion again... no hard evidence on hand to back it up.

Anonymous said...

When she graduates with an art degree from Towson University in 2017, Anna plans to learn nipple tattooing from her father.

"Arts degree" is such a vague term. Maybe both Roskam's piece, and Jim's reaction need more context, more definition?

The source of the above quote is

The article is about a man who in my opinion performs a valuable service for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery.


Winton Bates said...

I am not sure why John Roskam picks on Arts degrees. I think his reasoning applies to all university degrees. The benefits are private, just like the benefits of any other investment.

In my view public support should be viewed in the context of providing more equal opportunity and young people who do not attend university should be eligible for equivalent grants and loans to help them to get a good start in life.

Jim Belshaw said...

Winton first. You raise an interesting point.

Education offers private and public benefits. It is appropriate that people pay something for the private benefit along with action to support those who simply cannot afford to pay. I think that is justified on both equity and economic grounds.

The general challenge is to strike a balance between the public and private benefit. If you focus just on the private benefit and ignore the public benefit, you are likely to get under investment and reduced national wealth.

That said, what makes a university degree special? I have argued that rules enforced credential creep has been critical in maintaining relative private rates of return on degrees. I have also suggested that the absolute private dollar value return on degrees has dropped.

If I'm right, then action to remove credential creep would lead to sharp drops in the private rates of return on degrees and hence university student numbers. Governments would then have to make judgments based on the public benefit.

I am sympathetic to the idea that those not going to uni should receive an equivalent benefit on equity grounds. However, there is a conceptual problem. Given the mix of public and private and public benefits, how would you structure that assistance so as to extract a return for the private benefits while maximising the public benefit?

Jim Belshaw said...

Rod, I would argue that you confuse the purpose of a university degree. At the first level, it is an education, not a vocational training. You can see this type of idea most clearly at Melbourne, where vocational courses have been made post first degree. Not unexpectedly, demand for arts courses has gone up!

Winton wondered why Mr Roskam had picked on Arts. It's simply that Arts is non-vocational. In that sense, its seen to be useless.

Arts was, in fact, once a vocational course for many and especially teachers, ministers of religion and government officials. Those days have gone. Teachers do do arts subjects, but as part of an education degree. Ministers of religion have their own specialist courses. The public service no longer requires broad based entry level training.

Arts as a subject area has been in decline. In 2013, there was an uptake in Arts entry as a consequence of the removal of the cap on student numbers, but the downward trend has been quite deep.

kvd pointed to vagueness attached to the term Arts. That's a fair point. Having decide that business studies at UTS was not for her, eldest decide that she wanted to do Arts at Sydney, but retain a major in economics. She couldn't do that. The rules wouldn't allow it, so she went to UNSW to do Arts/Economics.

When I went to Uni, Arts was a broad, clearly defined field. That's no longer the case. As Helen's case illustrates, it has become something of a narrowing ghetto.

I am wondering a bit in this comment. Pulling it together, in the post I tried to indicate why an Arts degree was important from a practical employment perspective. Quite simply, you have a better chance of learning to write and think.

Evan said...

I think you are right. And the vocationalising of education is appalling.

Why shouldn't employers pay for the training of the staff? Why should citizens fund their bottom line? Remember all those patronising speeches about 'no such thing as a free lunch'? - apart from when it is training their employees apparently.

Anonymous said...

Well, from my ongoing post-doctoral studies at The University of HK* - paid for entirely by myself I might note for Mr Roskam's benefit - it seems to me this obsession with the measurement of "public" v "private" good possibly loses sight of the overarcing undeniable benefit of all or any education.

But I do like Jim's "I am wondering a bit in this comment" and shall now wander off to contemplate his meaning in my usual state of solitude :)

*Hard Knocks

Jim Belshaw said...

Wondering wandering. Should I change it? I will let the error stand!

Rod said...

Hi Jim,

I don't disagree with your thoughts on Arts Degrees. I share your sentiments that an Arts degree can provide a board understanding of the world in which we live and lived. This contextual arts is essential. It is also something being lost... and in some cases is lost from our unis.

With regard to the vocational aspect, this is not just an Arts issue. I feel that science (which is more my area) is experiencing the same "vocational problems". Science degrees now focus on work ready students. For example, Geologists are trained for the mining industry and are not educated (to understand our earth history and landscape). The more holistic approach is much more valuable and can be applied specifically if required. Being trained as a mine geologist is close to useless when you are asked whether a fertile farming soil is derived from a certain rock type.

I have a geology degree and have worked in Contaminated Land, Salinity, Groundwater and Natural Resource Management... my present work is mainly surface water with a large component of groundwater for a regional water supply. Having the broad education was the key for me to be able to have such a diverse career. I could adapt to new work environments because I was not trained for a specific job.

Rod said...

I guess my point is... if the arts degrees keep on going the way they are they will indeed be valueless... then again, if universities continue down the same line they would be valueless too.

You could then replace Universities with TAFE colleges. Specific industries could then fund the course that they want.

Our society would then be a wonderful technocracy where people were incapable of inter-disciplinary communication

Evan said...

I agree with Rod. My guess is that, in large part at least, Jim does too.

Jim Belshaw said...

Yes, Evan, I do. I was thinking, however, just how hard it is to make comparisons of standards over time because there are so many structural changes along the way.

Some times I can make comparisons. Youngest studies Ancient History at Macquarie. I thought that the courses were just as rigorous as the history I did all those years before, although the philosophy element was probably less.

By contrast, I thought that some of eldest's courses in Arts/Economics at UNSW were pretty micky mouse, although there was some good here too.

Rod's point about the need for more generalist, broad based skills was very well taken. I think in a changing world, the very specific and often narrow vocational stuff just doesn't cut the employment mustard.

Rod said...

I enjoy the way all you fellows provoke interesting conversation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Why thank you, Rod!

Thomas said...

When studying my Arts degree (part of the double B.Education/B.Arts), there was quite a high number of mature age students. Not something ridiculous, like 50%. But certainly something around the 30% range.

Of this, I'd say half were people looking for a 'sea change' so to speak.

The other half were people WELL outside of the working age and were engaging in pure learning. Not for any other purpose than to learn more about the world.

This has to be the noblest form of education aside from learning to help others.

I agree with previous commenters that the Arts degree is largely misunderstood (and, to a degree, mismanaged by universities). It's obviously not reverse welfare. For the majority of people, it's a way to achieve an end - whether it's a teaching focus (as with me), a chance for existing workers to up-skill so to speak, or a chance just to learn. And that's to say nothing of the students who enter Arts degrees from high school (quite a number of students do it every year) because they just want to get into uni and don't know what they want to do and/or genuinely want to learn.

I'll finish with this: I believe it's quite short-sighted to wholesale criticise a degree, graduates, or the like without actually even ATTEMPTING to understand them (the degrees and the graduates) - and this is what comes through from Roskam's piece.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this, Thomas. Apart from the fact that you are providing an SU perspective, you have raised a number of important points. One, perhaps the most important,is who enrolls in Arts and for what purpose.

My understanding of the UNE Arts external enrollment figures over time is that they do reflect the student mix you have talked about. So much of the discussion is focused on vocation on one side, school leavers on the other.

At UNE, and this is something I hadn't focused on, one of the greatest contributions is the role that the University has played in the re-education of older students in work and past work. Some of the best contributions have come from older students pursuing purely intellectual and personal objectives.

How do we balance this?