Why study arts?

The humanities lobby is fighting the culture wars on ground chosen by its enemies – responding to arguments that its courses are irrelevant to the world of work, with claims that the critical thinking skills inherent in arts degrees are what employers want.

But with the terms of dispute set, what do arts courses promise to deliver?

Eve Klein and Jack Walton (both Uni Queensland) asked UQ students what generic employability skills they thought they would get from subjects, on the basis of course outlines.

“Understanding how students perceive the presentation of employability skills within curriculum documents can help staff make considered choices around how learning is described and represented,” they state.

Using a ten–skills model, they found “sense-making” was most commonly identified by students.

This, they suggest, is not surprising, “given the historical focus of the BA on critical thought,” but students did not find other skills in course guides. “A partial explanation for resistance to explicit, employability-oriented change in BA contexts reflects academics’ relationships to the concept of employability itself.” In this context “employability” is an outcome of a course, not content.

This is a problem for Uni Queensland’s focus on employability.  Klein and Walton report students’ analysis, “identified some employability criteria as entirely absent from particular learning specialisations, and others were only perceived as minimally assessed.”

And it goes to a core question, which the “job skills in degrees” message assumes is answered – but isn’t. 

“From an institutional perspective at UQ, we might argue that the BA has not kept pace with employability-oriented directions of change. It may be argued, however, that developing students’ employability is not the only purpose of the BA.”

Eve Klein and Jack Walton, “Mapping future work skills in the bachelor of arts: findings from an Australian Study,” Higher Education Research and Development, August 16



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