The eligible bachelors

November 22, 1996

Arts and humanities graduates are just as able to adapt to the fast-changing information age as their more vaunted vocational peers, argues Michael Worton. Do we value our arts and humanities graduates? And if not, why not? Two weeks ago, an article in a daily newspaper blazoned across the page the headline "Leading firms spurn arts graduates". The story, based on a survey of personnel directors in 106 leading companies, revealed that only 1 per cent would choose the holder of an arts degree if a suitable vocational graduate were available.

Of course, no poll means anything unless one knows which questions were posed along with how and to whom. But the survey's findings are contradicted by all the evidence that I and my fellow deans of arts and humanities nationwide are given, not only by the careers services in universities but also by such organisations as the Confederation of British Industry, the Council for Industry and Higher Education and the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

The message is that arts graduates are eligible for 50 per cent of jobs advertised and that employers are concerned with the quality of the individual candidate and not with the subject(s) of their degree.

The newspaper article is symptomatic of the negative way in which an arts education is perceived today. The case for the employability of arts graduates can be easily made, and in the terms laid down by government. For instance, when announcing to the House of Commons on February 19 1996 that she was setting up the (Dearing) Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said that graduates would increasingly "need to switch career more than once in their lifetime", adding, "as the pace of change quickens, there will be a greater premium on the capacity to innovate".

Mrs Shephard's statement emphasised that graduates will need not only specific skills but flexibility, and a university arts education provides a vast range of skills that are needed by the labour market: advanced communication skills (both oral and written), listening skills, creativity, strategic thinking, critical evaluation of data, problem solving, the ability to make complex judgements, a training in emotional intelligence, and the capacity to work both in teams and alone (this latter quality being essential given the trend toward small companies and sole traders). In other words, an arts graduate is by definition trained to be flexible, as well as having acquired a wide range of both transferable and subject-specific skills.

All political parties recognise that economic efficiency is not the only god that we must serve and that attention must be given to the protection and enhancement of culture, to the crucial issue of quality of life. This is not a simple question of rhetoric or political expediency but of real, practical urgency, as is witnessed, for example, by the fact that many medical schools are seeking to introduce courses in the arts into their curricula. This is intended not only to "humanise" their young doctors and thereby improve their patient care but also to offer them new perspectives on illness, pain and medicine.

The arts and humanities are not an add-on to our society, a luxury to be afforded only by booming economies. They are vital to our survival as a thinking and self-aware society. As the Government forces universities towards providing more vocational training, we should remember that our primary function is to provide higher education. And education is at least as much about changing attitudes as about acquiring skills: many of these, after all, can be acquired on the job.

In 1963, when we engaged in the last serious national consideration of higher education, the Robbins committee pointed to the role of universities in the "transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship". Those were days when idealism still had some political credibility and education was valued for the changes it would one day bring rather than for the immediate support it might afford to an economy. As we ponder the future of the universities in the 1990s, we would do well to reread the Robbins report, for what is our "culture" today and what of it is "common", shared? And are universities "transmitting" this culture adequately? Perhaps, more radically, we should be seeking not to transmit but to redefine our culture.

As the information revolution makes knowledge ever easier to acquire, we need to question what exactly knowledge is and, crucially, we must learn how to process this flow of information that we assume is knowledge. In the past, we acquired knowledge in a linear fashion, learning one thing after another in a sequence that had a pattern that we could trace back and project forward. This is no longer the case. The information superhighway leads nowhere, it simply (and also labyrinthine-like) exists. Information is now often acquired in a chance way, as buttons are hit, sites visited and pages downloaded without a sense of a causal logic or a history to the process. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is radically different from how we used to learn. So we must learn to think differently.

It is in this context that an arts education is very important. If there is one thing that every arts graduate learns, it is to challenge premises and to question processes. This means that the arts graduate is not simply trained in flexibility but is educated in intelligence. Can there be any more sellable product than an arts education? Or any better preparation for the brave new world of the next millenniumI?

Michael Worton is professor of French and dean of arts at University College London, and chair, the Council of UK Deans of Arts and Humanities.

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