CGHE Webinar 326

Resilience, flexibility, and normativity: rethinking the role of the Humanities in the economy

Date: Thursday, 12 January 2023 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Location: Zoom webinar, registration required

Event Materials

This event is now archived and we are pleased to provide the following event media and assets, along with the original event overview.

Speaker: James Robson
Chair: Simon Marginson

The purpose of Higher Education is increasingly framed in economic terms: as a means for graduates to gain a positional advantage in the labour market and increase their earnings while also ensuring ‘the economy’ is supplied with workers with the knowledge and skills demanded by employers. Consequently, graduate labour market outcomes and salary returns are increasingly used to measure the quality of education and training and as a key regulatory mechanism in Tertiary Education systems around the world. Arts and Humanities subjects, at an aggregate level, tend to provide relatively modest labour market returns to graduates, particularly compared to STEM and medical science subjects, and often face intense criticism for failing to provide students with the skills demanded by employers. Consequently, the Humanities find themselves in a rumbling state of crisis and having to justify their value and importance in the face of these critical economic discourses.

Such justifications largely fall into three main arguments: approaches that emphasise the intrinsic value of the Humanities to society; approaches that emphasise the long term labour market value of transferable skills associated with humanities subjects for individual graduate; and arguments that emphasise the broader value of the creative industries to the economy at a macro level. However, neither sidestepping the economic critique or rooting justifications in economic orthodoxy has succeeded in providing a truly compelling response to concerns about poor employment outcomes or skills mismatch. The economic critiques and the different forms of advocacy rarely come together in meaningful dialogue.

Therefore, in this presentation, I argue that there needs to be a fundamentally shift in the discourse and the mode of justifying the Humanities by problematising orthodox assumptions around and the role Humanities Graduates can and, in normative terms, should play in the economy. Using the concept of narrative, I will argue that the ‘narrative skills’ humanities graduates develop, while not necessarily closely aligned with technical skills demands, are key for increasingly fragile and uncertain labour markets marked by job churn, rapid transformation and technological development. They lead to resilient employees able to navigate economic uncertainty in a flexible manner. However, more importantly, narrative skills are crucial for envisioning new social and economic futures, imperative given the pressure for economic transformation in the face of the climate disaster. Therefore, in this webinar I will argue that the Humanities have a critical, normative role in developing graduates with the skills to become agents of meaningful economic change.

About the CGHE webinar series on ‘Do the Arts and Humanities have a Place in Higher Education? Fresh lenses on the debates’

The economic purposes of higher education dominate policy and public discourse in HE systems around the world with graduate labour market outcomes, graduate salaries, and the skills needs of employers increasingly used as markers of educational quality and mechanisms of institutional regulation. Arts and Humanities subjects tend to be associated with relatively modest labour market returns compared to STEM and medical sciences subjects and are often criticised for failing to provide employers with the skills required by a rapidly digitising economy. At the same time, researchers in Arts and Humanities subjects often struggle to show clear impact from their work in a regulatory and funding context that links research value with impact, industrial linkages, and innovation. As such, the Arts and Humanities face criticism, regulatory pressures, and reduced funding. The Arts and Humanities are consequently often described as being in a state of ‘crisis’ and sympathetic commentators, advocates, and researchers regularly attempt to justify the importance of these subjects in both economic and intrinsic terms.

However, the debates over the social, political, and economic value of the Arts and Humanities have been taking place in various forms for more than a century. In fact, the Arts and Humanities have arguably been in a near constant state of crisis since at least 1959, when C. P. Snow wrote his famous essay on ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’. Despite ongoing crises, some expansions and contractions, and some tinkering at disciplinary boundaries, the Arts and Humanities have proved remarkably robust and resilient. Yet critiques and existential justifications for Arts and Humanities subjects remain a regular feature of the higher education landscape with very little meaningful dialogue taking place between either side and no realistic move towards resolution in the debate at either policy, public or academic levels. A new way of framing the discussion of the place of the Arts and Humanities in higher education is clearly required. Therefore, in this seminar series we aim to shift the discourse and reframe the discussion by bringing together different perspectives to examine the place of the Arts and Humanities in relation to society, politics and the economy through the lenses of individual students, academics and researchers, institutional governance, national policy, and global discourse.

You need to register individually for each webinar in the series. You can register for the other webinars in the series here.

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