In 2005 I graduated from university with a combined degree in engineering and arts, majoring in philosophy.
Now, with 15 years of experience as a professional engineer specialising in wind turbine technology, I can look back and compare the practicality and “job relevance” of my two tertiary qualifications.
My grade average was almost exactly the same in both courses, and while I would not say that one was easier than the other, they were certainly very different.
Engineering grades seemed to be almost directly related to the number of hours spent studying and doing assignments: 10 hours’ study might get you a pass, 20 a credit, 30 a distinction, for example.
Yes, there was some variation between courses depending on how naturally the content came to me. Distinctions in mechanics of materials took me less study time than in software engineering.
With arts subjects, however, there was no such relationship between hours spent and grade achieved.
Rather, how well I did in each course was dependent on having a good idea, and whether or not such an idea came to me seemed quite random. Without a good and original idea, it was nearly impossible to get better than a credit no matter how many hours I spent rewriting my essays.
Skills and concepts
There were other differences.
My arts degree focused on core theoretical concepts and skills and very little on the kind of specific tasks you might expect to perform in a job.
As an arts student, I gained critical thinking and logic skills, and practised applying them to a variety of issues until they were deeply embedded in the way I now interpret and interact with the world.
In engineering, the focus was partly on learning core concepts, like physics and maths, but with an important second focus on the idea of “job readiness”. I learnt actual tasks that we could be expected to use in a future job.
Job readiness was emphasised more and more as I progressed through my five years at university.
Technical fields move quickly
The interesting thing about the “job readiness” skills I learned at university is that these are the skills that quickly became outdated in technical professions such as engineering.
Fifteen years after graduation, the job-ready material that I learnt in my degree is no longer relevant.
The programs (for example, the computer-aided design or CAD program I learnt) and even types of structural analysis have evolved beyond recognition. The computer language I learnt to code in, project management methods, manufacturing methods — in fact nearly every practical example — were laughably out of date with five years of graduation.
Technical fields like engineering move quickly and as a professional you need to be able to learn and adapt quickly if you are to keep up to date. Many important fields that I have become expert in now did not exist when I was at university.
But because I learnt how to learn, and I have a good theoretical basis in physics and maths, for example, I am able to keep up to date with my fast-moving field.
I believe another issue is crucial: industry doesn’t necessarily know what it needs, and especially what will be needed in the future.
Along with many other new graduates, I was criticised for my lack of job-readiness in my first few years at work.
Some of these criticisms were that my generation was not willing to do menial tasks, that I could not hand draft (even though that skill was not required), or that I didn’t know a specific CAD program used by my company (I learnt it in a week).
Adding more job readiness skills to university courses will reduce the amount of time that can be spent on the important theoretical building blocks, leading to perverse outcomes within a few years of graduates leaving university.
Their technical skills will become outdated very fast if they have focused on learning specific skills at the expense of a rigorous theoretical foundation.
The humble arts degree punches above its weight
So what about my arts degree?
By contrast, it has not dated much at all.
There have certainly been changes in the way topics like feminism and race are discussed. But the main skills you learn in a humanities degree are timeless: critical reading, critical thinking, communication of complex ideas, and most importantly (in my opinion) logical reasoning.
These skills have made me a far better engineer than I would have been without them, and I expect the same is true for most others with an arts degree, no matter which field they enter.
It may not be a straightforward ticket to employment — like an engineering degree — but wherever graduates end up, they are almost guaranteed to do a better job than they would without that intellectual training.
For these reasons, we need to be careful which courses we encourage students to take on, and we especially need to rethink giving degrees aimed at “job readiness” preferential treatment in relation to student fees.
The Australian Government has proposed a university education funding that would see the cost of degrees for “job-relevant” courses such as engineering, maths and nursing decrease while the cost of degrees such as humanities (implicitly not “job-relevant”) will increase.
It is not so easy to anticipate what is ahead of us. If students don’t get a strong education in theoretical basics they will not be as prepared to adapt to the future when it turns out to be different from what today’s politicians imagine it will be.