OPINION | Oh the humanities! Why an affordable arts degree should still have a place in our society

ELITIST: Do we really want a society that only gives the rich the opportunity to study some of the most important subjects?
ELITIST: Do we really want a society that only gives the rich the opportunity to study some of the most important subjects?

I did an arts degree.

Sure, it was the fancy kind with something in brackets after it.

And I did it in the ugliest tower block in Sydney, rather than a sprawling lawn and sandstone environment that the phrase "arts degree" usually conjures up.

But it had no exams, the assignments were pass/fail, and there was an explicit understanding that we were there more to improve our minds than prepare for a job.

Yes, we've all heard the jokes about that kind of wafty, wanky type of degree and where it leads. (In case you haven't, here's an example: How do you get an arts graduate off your porch? Pay for the pizza.)

But the truth is both more complicated and simpler than the stereotype.

More complicated, because employers are increasingly valuing soft skills - such as cultural literacy and analytical thinking - enhanced by arts degrees.

And simpler, because many arts students aren't even there expecting a job afterwards. It's a first step, or a sideways step, or part of a longer view.

Some readers may think that's a disgrace - what are tertiary institutions for except to prepare future workers?

Others - many of whom may have their own background in the humanities - might recognise that my experience has more in common with a traditional university education than all the workplace-oriented courses put together.

I think there's room for both models in our tertiary institutions, and horses for courses and all that, but this week took us a step closer to turning our universities into places you attend just for the piece of paper.

Unless you're rich, of course.

Ah, doesn't money change everything?

Because, now that the South Australia-focused Centre Alliance party has backed the Federal Government's university funding changes, a four-year degree in some disciplines could cost about $58,000, effectively cutting less financially well-endowed students off from degrees such as arts, law and commerce.

The flip-side is that nursing, teaching, engineering, maths and agriculture, among other things, just got a lot cheaper.

I have no complaints about that - more power to them - and I'm not unaware that the government is using the fee changes to massage people into industries that need graduates, just as it is trying to avoid a glut of qualified but unemployed lawyers.

But I do object to (effectively) family money being the only avenue to buy yourself the time and opportunity to learn and think deeply about the world.

Unless, of course, you defer your fees, saddling yourself with decades of debt, to which (because, law aside, many humanities-related professions don't bring in the big bucks) you drip-feed payments via your tax.

Senator Jacqui Lambie opposed the bill in her usual plain language: "I'm not going to tell the country that poor people can't get their dream jobs."

Meanwhile, Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie gave herself whiplash flipping onto the Coalition's side, after earlier climbing on the #MyArtsDegree outrage wagon.

"I will be forever grateful to @Flinders for #MyArtsDegree. It took me 10 years to complete while working and raising three children. I would not have had my career or the privilege of sitting in the #HoR without it," she wrote on Twitter in June.

But now her party has negotiated for benefits for South Australia, they've thrown the rest of Australia's students under the bus.

And this in the year that made the end of high school incredibly stressful, on-site university learning untenable and casual unemployment patchy at best.

Welcome to university, kids!

The humanities allow us to enquire into what it is to be human, and teach us about how we live and interact.

Without arts and law graduates, equipped with valuable creative and critical thinking skills, our future will be darker, dumber and a whole lot less diverse.