Tertiary Qualifications: Humanities graduates

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HOW important are humanities graduates to the SA economy, or for that matter, the world at large? It is a sensitive subject, and it’s difficult to separate objective assessment from subjective views.

Much depends on where on the planet you are.

In the US, a liberal arts degree still has great cachet. It is difficult to get a “good” job without one, even if you previously studied something as vocational and practical as gourmet cake-making.

However, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, co-founder of early Web browser Netscape, once said the average holder of an English degree was fated to become a shoe salesman, hawking wares to former classmates who majored in maths.

On the other hand, Steve Jobs said that to be truly brilliant, technology must be coupled with artistry. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.”

Closer to home, the Academy of Science of SA carried out a study that found enrolment in the humanities was declining, as government funding benefited mostly science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses of study. But it also found that nearly all recent humanities graduates were employed, with more than 80% working across the public and private sectors. However, quite recently two-thirds of these graduates were enrolled in only five fields — law, public administration, communication, economics and psychology.

Ruksana Osman, professor and dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand, says that within the first year after graduation most humanities graduates are employed. But she also says such graduates remain “largely invisible” to employers.

“The main reason for this is the perception that a humanities education is too broad, with no easy fit into the various sectors of the economy,” she says.

However, she states that humanities graduates have an “all-round education” characterised by flexibility, agility and responsiveness. “These are also key characteristics of people in companies and businesses that survive during economic hardship.” This is not readily recognised, she says, especially by “older institutions that are governed by far less creative ways of operating and which are committed to traditional ways of doing business even as the world around them changes”.

Osman says there needs to be greater awareness that the world operates interactively and not in silos. “Foreign-language speakers trained in humanities faculties can easily offer support [to technical or sales staff] as business with the world expands or grows.”

British Council research involving the University of the Free State shows that social history affects graduate employment, that some degrees are more sought-after by employers than others, and that the reputation of a university and its geographical location affect employment opportunities.

In the context of SA, this includes huge historical inequities and big differences in student and staff ratios among historically white and black universities.

The Academy of Science of SA research says that generally negative assumptions about the “marketability” of humanities graduates are overdone, even though these graduates do earn “significantly less” than those in other fields.

The study acknowledges “deep unhappiness” over the international trend “towards the commercialisation of knowledge”, which has promoted a “shallow interpretation of what it is to be human”.

It says the disciplines that make up the humanities — including the social sciences, performing arts, law and education — “are indispensable, producing an essential set of analytical skills and bodies of knowledge, without which society and the wider world would be inscrutable”, especially with regard to understanding across cultures.

An Oxford University study finds a lack of evidence underpins the “worrying belief” that students should take only vocational subjects at university because humanities degrees will not lead to high salaries. The study indicates that humanities graduates from Oxford shift from teaching jobs to careers in finance, law and the media.

Jesse Doorasamy, executive for human resources at JSE-listed construction and engineering firm Group Five, says the company’s employees are divided into five “job families“: general; finance & information technology; technical & engineering; commercial; and operations.

About 30% of graduate employees are humanities graduates; 50% have engineering and technical qualifications, including quantity surveying; and 20% have BCom and legal degrees. By far the majority of Group Five employees are contract workers employed on projects such as Eskom’s giant Medupi power station, including project managers, carpenters and painters.

Doorasamy says the “general” family group is also one of the largest at Group Five, and includes human resources, communications, corporate affairs, administrative and site & safety professionals, and is “heavily biased towards humanities graduates”.

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