Bob Brehl: Arts degree a good investment in future

  • June 13, 2019

As proud parents, we basked at the Queen’s University convocation ceremony earlier this month where our son received a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History.

Sitting in historic Grant Hall below its landmark limestone clock tower, so many things went through my mind, not least of which were the discussions we’ve had about liberal arts and the humanities.

He has told me about how his friends in commerce, computer science and engineering often say things like, “What are you going to do with your history degree?” Or, he’s told me their jokes like: “How do you get an Arts major off your front porch? Just pay for the pizza!” That one got a chuckle.

The value of a liberal arts and humanities education has come under attack the last couple decades with the rise of STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Those are where the jobs are, the saying goes, and STEM leaders and practitioners are what is needed for our economy. 

So, what of English, History, Languages, Philosophy, Religious Studies and other arts programs?

It appears the current government of Ontario is in the STEM school of thought after it announced it will start tying funding to the performance outcomes of colleges and universities. Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Merrilee Fullerton has said the government will put more money into programs that show graduate earnings and employment rates are higher. 

“Importantly, this is not about competition between universities and colleges, it is about institutions improving themselves based on their historical performance to deliver better results for their students,” Fullerton said in a news release.

As a taxpayer, I like a solid return on investment for my tax dollars. But the word “competition” is interesting because some critics say this new model is the beginning of “The Hunger Games” for Ontario’s higher education.

Comparing the new funding formula to a series of books and movies about elders creating a competition where young people hunt down and kill each other is rather dramatic, but there’s no doubt it is a sweeping change to the current funding model. By 2024-25, 60 per cent of funding will be tied to university performance outcomes via strategic mandate agreements. Currently, only 1.4 per cent of funding is tied to such outcomes, according to University Affairs website, Canada’s authoritative source of information about and for Canada’s university community. 

Long ago, when a university education was available to the privileged few, there wasn’t the assumption that holding a degree would springboard directly into a career. Those days ended in the era of black and white television and bunny ears. Today, a degree is a necessity.

But what about arts programs? Will they get pared back or eliminated because their best outcomes may come years after graduation?

It’s not uncommon for engineering, commerce and computer science grads from top schools to walk immediately into six-figure jobs. Arts majors often take low-paid entry-level jobs or go to colleges for more hands-on training.

It’s not a fair fight when funding turns into a competition. How can a student in religious studies who eventually becomes a Catholic priest or Presbyterian minister compete in the government test against a commerce student whose first job at a professional services management firm pays $150,000 a year? 

Most people know pursuing the liberal arts track isn’t a quick path to riches. First, job salaries tend to be lower than vocational degrees in fields like nursing, accounting, or computer science. Yet over time, liberal arts graduates’ earnings often surge — history majors may become lawyers or judges, philosophy majors may put their analytical and argumentative skills to work in the financial world, and international-relations majors may thrive as overseas executives. 

Defining the value of an education based on immediate employment is problematic. Losing arts programs will lead to losing crucial ways to understand and improve both the world and ourselves. 

The job market today changes at lightning speed, too. Just take a look at the skills employers say they’re seeking. LinkedIn’s research on the most sought-after job skills by employers for 2019 found the three most wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration, while one of the five top “hard skills” was people management. That points to students in the humanities over computer geeks.

Let’s hope this new policy doesn’t impede Ontario students who choose a longer, more winding path. The arts broaden minds and thereby the horizon for us all long-term.

Winston Churchill was a great proponent of liberal arts education, in particular history. “Study history, study history,” he once said. “In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

Oh no, maybe our son will turn out to be a politician. But if he does, hopefully he’ll protect the arts and humanities education.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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