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Is a BA ‘bugger all’, or essential future-proofing?

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JORDAN MOSHE

Humanities degrees are often considered soft options with severely limited earning potential. When compared to more technical or financial degrees, those focusing on language, literature, or even psychology are seen as poor substitutes.

However, the truth is that not only are such “artsy” degrees as – or even more – important than technical or financial areas of study, their graduates are as employable as scientists and accountants.

“This debate is certainly nothing new,” says Professor Garth Stevens, the acting head of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). “It’s an old question society has asked time and again, every time in a different iteration.”

In part, this is because humanities subjects are frequently cast in a negative light because of their requirements. “Humanities degrees generally don’t require maths and science, which many other degrees do require,” says the former Vice-Chancellor of University of Cape Town, Dr Max Price. “For different reasons, there are students who don’t have maths and science who often default to humanities, and they are less well prepared for university in general.

“This creates the impression that the humanities are easier subjects, or that the standards are not as high, but the standards are demanding. Many humanities subjects are more difficult than some in commerce or even medicine in terms of what they demand in order to do well. A first in a humanities subject is generally more difficult to achieve than in a science subject.”

Stevens says he believes it is a circular argument. “To shore the humanities up against any other area of study is an artificial distinction,” he says. “Everybody is talking about the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, and how that means we need to leave certain subjects behind, without realising that these subjects are an integral part of the fabric of the future.

“The technological industry itself is derived from the humanities. The drive to innovate, the need to consider problems critically and develop solutions are all soft skills – the very domain of the humanities. Even more importantly, those who say that technology is taking over forget that humans still need to do something, and that is to continue to think critically.”

Important though this need may be, many argue that a humanities graduate doesn’t have the same earning capacity as a BCom or engineering graduate. Given that a number of scholarship foundations across the country offer funding only for the study of technical or financial degrees, this argument seems to have some validity.

“The aim of the scholarship is to promote forward movement and growth,” says Jodi Bailey, South African Country Manager of the Moshal Scholarship Program. “This means that we aim to enable students to break the cycle of financial difficulty as fast as possible, and get a return on their studies by entering the workplace as soon as possible.”

Not unlike many scholarship programmes, Moshal offers scholarships to deserving candidates in a very particular scope of subjects, including economics, IT, and business. Bailey stresses, however, that this doesn’t mean that those who have humanities degrees are not employable.

“Although people have little respect for the profession, the truth is that educators can earn a decent wage,” she says. “However, it takes time to progress to that level. It’s not as immediate as it is with certain financial or technical degrees. Such degrees enable people to move faster, and pay their success forward by bringing their families out of financial difficulty.”

This process, stresses Bailey, is not applicable to every person. “Earning capacity is not the reason to take up a finance degree. Money appeals to everyone, and for that reason everyone wants to be a chartered accountant because they believe that they make millions. [But], if a person’s not cut out for it, or has talents elsewhere, it’s a terrible idea to take up a technical degree.

“Career guidance in this country is sorely lacking, and students aren’t being taught to pursue what really matters to them or is in their interest. Their interest could earn them more in the long run than a career that appears lucrative.”

The statistics confirm this.

According to Stevens, the notion that those with soft skills aren’t as employable as those with hard skills is completely inaccurate. Citing a Wits’ survey, he says about 81% of Wits humanities graduates secure stable employment by the time they graduate.

“This is a stark contrast to the information people peddle,” he says. “Humanities graduates are absorbed as quickly as others. Some maintain that BAs are vague and therefore unemployable, but roughly 60% of graduates report being employed in a very specific job relevant to what they studied. This speaks for itself.”

Therefore, while those who have commitment to and passion for engineering or accounting can pursue such degrees, students who better fit the mould of a BA shouldn’t be discouraged. In fact, if a person choses the area best suited to them, it inevitably improves their career prospects because they are passionate about what they are doing.

“A BA degree doesn’t close doors, but opens up opportunities,” says Price. “Ideally, every university student should have a liberal arts degree. Its tenets apply to careers which appear completely removed, including law and engineering. In the United Kingdom, graduates with classics degrees in Greek, Latin, or even ancient history are among the most employable at corporate consulting firms because they find that they have the skills most necessary to do the job. It’s not the subject itself that makes them employable, but the skill set they have acquired.”

He concludes, “The graduates of today will probably work in four to five jobs in their lifetimes. It is said that more than 50% of the jobs people will be doing in 10 years’ time have not yet been invented. Students need to be equipped to handle different jobs, and broaden their perspectives. A humanities degree is an investment that provides skills that will last a student through career changes, and well into the future.”

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