by Simon Marginson

The case for more liberal arts and science degrees

Professor Simon Marginson argues the case for liberal arts and science university education to be scaled up in University World News.

Liberal studies in higher education suffer from lack of esteem, but they embody crucial insights into how society works. And suddenly, they have acquired crucial new responsibility.

STEM-educated leaders of the tech sector have developed a new form of public space which has not just been contaminated by, it has been captured by a populist politics that radically undermines the values of higher education, jettisons validated and creative knowledge, and deepens the divide between universities and the public interest. Higher educators need to respond, most of all in the countries directly affected, in the United States, United Kingdom and parts of Western and Eastern Europe.

How can higher education respond? First, by continuing to expand the rate of participation in higher education, and by making the sector less elite in social terms, we eat into the electoral basis for anti-intellectual populism of the Donald Trump kind.

It was HG Wells who first said that civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe. That’s looking more true now – but if mass higher education is to lift the level of public literacy, then the academic level and student engagement in mass education must be sufficient. This is not the case in every country. And MOOCs – massive open online courses – are not enough.

Second – and this is a caveat to the first point – if higher education is so dominated by applied STEM-based disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business studies that it largely excludes the critical social sciences and humanities, or if it is so occupied by generic programmes, and social networks building that it excludes foundational cognitive development in fields of knowledge, it is unable to sustain the Kantian or Humboldtian nexus between knowledge, truth, public virtue, public interest and social improvement.

Which brings us to the missing part of the puzzle – liberal arts and science education. This is not only the best antidote to Trumpism, it has the potential to play a catalytic role in what might be the core strategic problem of our times, which is the need for a deeper reconciliation between American-European ways of thinking, living and governing and Chinese ways.

The future evolution of world society will be determined by whether a creative integration between East and West can be achieved.

The challenges of liberal education

But if the liberal arts and sciences are to move from the margins and play a more strategic role on a larger scale they have three challenges to overcome.

The first challenge is the current lack of balance in higher education, both West and East, between the different disciplines. There is an imbalance between on one hand STEM, on the other hand the core social sciences and humanities, in social esteem, policy, funding and often in the extent of provision.

This is not a problem of student demand for the liberal disciplines, which remains significant in most countries. But it is STEM, especially in engineering and medical and biomedical research, that triggers government approval and drives ranking performance, even though the graduate employment records of many STEM graduates are no better than in other disciplines.

Here it is vital to make the distinction between a liberal arts approach, and a liberal arts and sciences approach. The arts and science approach to liberal education, the structure used in North America, is much better. The arts and humanities should not become locked into opposition to all fields of science.

The ideal structure is for liberal arts and science first degrees to operate as foundational to STEM-based professional programmes such as medicine and engineering. This provides more depth under the professional degree.

The second and most immediately difficult challenge is the stranglehold of human capital theory in policy and the public mind. The idea that there is – or should be – a simple linear relationship between degree and work downgrades the liberal disciplines, including the core sciences such as physics or biological science. Yet we know that the linear model does not apply in a huge number of cases.

Many graduates work in jobs other than those for which they were trained. Specialist positions are often filled by non-specialist graduates, or the wrong kind of specialist. Other positions are generic ones. Moreover, jobs are changing rapidly and radically.

We also know that students have a less instrumental take on higher education than often expected. In the UK a recent survey of 9,000 students at 123 institutions found that only 34% of respondents believed universities should be accountable for poor graduate employment, but 68% believed they should be accountable for poor teaching. When asked which factors best demonstrate a university has excellent teaching, graduate employment came last out of the seven choices in the survey.

The third and hardest challenge is the way that in many countries the liberal curriculum has been confined to the education of the social elite.

Here not only are the benefits of liberal arts education denied to the mass of students, but liberal education becomes trapped as a permanently poor relation within elite education. A related problem is the positioning of programmes for educating global citizens as solely elite tracks, though much global mobility is not privileged.

Ultimately, the best way out of the trap is to establish liberal arts and science programmes as the normal first degree, followed by the professional masters.

The best of both worlds

National systems of higher education need to find ways of drawing on the strengths of both kinds of institution, the stand-alone liberal arts college and the large research university.

They also need to correctly configure the liberal and professional disciplines without setting them against each other; and to configure the sciences and non-sciences without setting them against each other.

In the double structure of liberal first degree-professional masters, the relation between the liberal and professional disciplines is mutually nurturing rather than oppositional. This is the curriculum structure of the Melbourne Model, at the University of Melbourne, where I worked before my present job at University College London.

I have no doubt that this bachelor-masters division of labour is the optimal form of higher education. It does not necessarily lead to more years of study in total; the costs of the extended liberal preparation are wholly or partly counterbalanced by a reduction in the length of the professional degrees. The students gain markedly in each of breadth, depth, social connectedness and global awareness.

I have also no doubt that in future years, the contents of the self-forming liberal arts and sciences will become more hybrid, more East/West in character, but cultural and epistemological diversity will continue.