What is a degree in the Humanities worth in a post-COVID world?

Eniola Ajao '21
November 19, 2020

In an attempt to encourage students to enter industries that it believes will drive job growth, the Australian government announced a reform package in June that would lower fees for “job-relevant” courses while raising the cost of some humanities courses. Education Minister Dan Tehan believes that this plan will give taxpayers the best value for their money. "Students will have a choice," Mr Tehan said. "Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities." Under the proposed changes, fees for most humanities courses will more than double. However, “subjects in nursing, psychology, English, languages, teaching, agriculture, maths, science, health, environmental science and architecture will be cheaper. The Government will increase its contribution to the cost of these classes, so students can expect to pay between $3,700 and $7,700 per year.” 

Academics attacked the changes on Twitter, with political economist Gareth Bryant writing, “Course ‘price’ has a fairly weak effect on student choice at Australian universities due to deferred cost and other factors like institutional status being more important. Tehan’s changes won’t do much to redirect students to STEM but will subject arts grads to longer and higher HECS repayments.” 

But Catherine Friday, education lead at global accounting firm Ernst and Young, said the change would be good for the economy and jobs. "As public education delivers both public and private good, there is a strong nudge here towards maximizing both, and discouraging ongoing high enrollments in courses like law, where demand for lawyers isn’t growing at anywhere near the pace of the numbers of new law graduates every year," she said.

These reforms are part of larger changes to universities around the world as they find themselves grappling with the impacts COVID-19. However, they also represent the increasingly business-oriented focus in universities, and invite us to consider the aims of education. In the United States and abroad, education’s primary goal has become to teach students to be economically productive. This shortsighted focus on profitable skills has consequences, particularly as we grapple with the effects of the pandemic. 

The humanities originated in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. with  the first concentrated development of tragedy or drama, comedy, philosophy, and history. Historically, the humanities have been central to education because they have been seen as essential for creating competent democratic citizens. We treat education as though it was designed to prepare students for the job market rather than to think critically and become knowledgeable, productive, and empathetic individuals. 

Moreover, many questions remain unanswered in a post-COVID world. College environments will change in unpredictable ways, as will the job market. How many of us will work from home forever? Will Zoom replace in-person meetings? What about college lectures? Plenty of jobs in settings that rely on human gatherings face big unknowns, because it’s too early to know if people will revert to their old patterns or settle into new behavioral patterns influenced by the coronavirus. The irony is that the focus on jobs in universities will jeopardize our ability to answer these questions. The myopic focus on economic productivity alone will also erode our ability to criticize authority, reduce our sympathy with the marginalized, and damage our competence to deal with complex global problems in a time where we need it most.