Humanities Fightback:  CASSH Skills VS STEM.

Just how do Universities respond to Minister Tehan’s diabolical plan to neuter the brainpower of the next generation through engineering their debt burden by more than doubling fees for Humanities Degrees?

As Universities quietly consider their options it has occurred to the Minister this might be an inadvertent funding bonanza for them, so he is planning to head them off at the pass. And why is it the Minister is so sure STEM degrees will be the answer in a post-COVID-19 society for those seeking employment?

The term STEM was conceived back in 2001 when educators in the US were becoming concerned their children were falling behind the rest of the western world in science and mathematics.

Judith Hallinen, at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, has studied how successfully the focus on STEM subjects has worked. Based on a research report from 2012 she wrote: ‘While the goal in the United States is a prepared STEM workforce, the challenge was in determining the most strategic expenditure of funds, that will result in the greatest impact, on the preparation of students to have success in STEM fields. It is necessary, therefore, to determine the shortcomings of traditional programs to ensure that new STEM-focused initiatives are intentionally planned.’

That sounds familiar. The idea then was, and is now, to link education goals with workforce needs. But research has shown, including in Australia, that girls were not so interested in taking up the challenge of STEM, nor were students from racial groups in the U.S. An important reason why was that they were poorly taught. Nevertheless, they have been very well marketed, particularly by politicians bent on economic growth.

Girls, it seems, have not suffered too much without STEM, although they certainly earn less than their male counterparts. But young women are more likely to go to university than young men and across the world, in publicly listed companies, those employing more women in senior management positions are more profitable than those dominated by males. Under Minister Tehan’s plan girls will be steered out of Arts/Humanities towards their traditional gender-stereotyped careers in teaching, nursing, and psychology.

The term STEM, which is bandied about, has the strength of a gospel. University courses in the humanities and social sciences now have a stigma and student numbers globally have fallen. Yet as Michael Keating has documented (P&I June 25th) ‘for most jobs that employ graduates, the skills that are being sought are not highly job specific technical skills’. However, the effect is, Humanities staff do face a serious crisis-of-confidence.

It is critical that Universities bridge this dichotomy between the utilitarian model being imposed on them and their intrinsic contribution to the good of society, the future of work and the future of culture. It is not the purpose of a University to serve a market-driven culture or to simply do the Government’s bidding.

With Sco-Mo the marketing man as PM, do we need a parallel catch cry to STEM to sell the value of Arts/ Humanities subjects to society more effectively? How about CASSH: Communication, Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities? They are all ‘understandings’ involving ‘skills’, without which no business or industry can thrive. There would be a certain irony in using such an acronym, but it might remind policymakers, employers, and the public that there is more to making money than having STEM skills.

The intrinsic value of CASSH degrees is that they provide preparation for life rather than for a specific job. Bearing this in mind, Universities need to clearly define their target audience, and then ‘sell’ their product more effectively.

The whole undergraduate program needs to be re-thought in terms of the variety of futures today’s students will face. The first-year program could be ‘marketed’ to entering students as ‘ideas-driven’ and an essential, if not compulsory, starting point for students from all fields.

Jordan Peterson likens the student entering University to Pinocchio, a puppet who can be manipulated, who has not found its place. He speaks of life as a state of chaos which Humanities and Arts can teach you to understand and sort through. When you enter University, you don’t understand the past and the lessons that have been learnt through all the disciplines of history, sociology, politics, psychology, literature, language, communication, the arts and more. This applies equally to STEM students.

While the pressure will remain on Universities to turn out potential employees, well qualified with advanced technical and intellectual skills, at the same time employers are saying they want graduates with good communication, interpersonal and emotional skills as well as knowledge skills. They want them to be able to think, to write and to articulate ideas as well as collaborate with all types of sometimes difficult people. STEM subjects do not teach those skills but CASSH courses do.

We can see four main target audiences for Arts/Humanities courses. They include:

  • students completing their schooling – the Pinocchios,
  • employees with STEM skills who have come to understand (or their employers have) their successful futures will depend on broadening their knowledge of humanity. They are currently employed workers but in need of a better understanding of how the world works. These individuals want ‘bespoke’ courses, tailor-made to their immediate work needs, and several Universities are already working to supply courses to meet those needs. Business should be encouraged to pay these fees.
  • mature students who may have lost their jobs during the pandemic and need to reinvent their job future and,
  • those who want to study for its own sake, to give purpose and interest to their lives including those entering the fourth age.

Back in the 1970s when we were lecturers at La Trobe University mature age students were encouraged to enrol based on their life/work experience. Some of the most interesting and highly motivated students we taught were of mature age.

With the disruption to the job market caused by the pandemic, with rapid social change, combined with a longer life expectancy, people are even more in need of opportunities for ‘lifelong learning’ and ongoing ‘reinvention’. The University could capitalise on this trend, particularly in relation to those wanting to move out of traditional, perhaps ‘unskilled’ jobs and into the growing ‘services’ sector. Social work, aged care, sports, and cultural administration are already ripe for such students.

The Universities need the flexibility to create new programs, not just undergraduate or post-graduate degrees, with a new fee structure, and clear marketing to business leaders looking for their key employees to upgrade their social and management skills.

COVID-19 has certainly changed the game. There will be fewer jobs and different jobs, with more working from home than previously, but never has there been a greater need for innovation, flexibility and human understanding combined. Most jobs in the future will require workers with CASSH competencies Minister Tehan, as well as the hotly favoured STEM skills.

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Patricia Edgar is an educator. She was the architect of the Australian Children’s Television Standards, the founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation.

Dr Don Edgar, OAM, is a sociologist, an Ambassador for NARI (National Ageing Research Institute) and Foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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