In recent years the push for students to study STEM courses has been consistent, and understandable. Data is important. Science and evidence-based decisions are crucial to our survival. Technology surrounds us and is increasingly integrated into our experiences.
But data is nothing without proper analysis. Data must be understood and grounded in our human context. The right questions must be asked, which consider the complexity and nuance of behaviour and the nebulous ways in which groups of people interact. The answers must be unpacked qualitatively, not just quantitatively. The humanities and social sciences offer these skills, along with the consideration of ethics and longer-term consequences to our actions, the ability to learn from history and have empathy for others.
This is not a dichotomy, nor is it something that can be fixed with a compulsory subject for all science students called Civics 101. This is not a call to defund STEM at the expense of the humanities. There is an opportunity for real innovation here. Unfortunately in Australia our government is actively discouraging students from studying tertiary humanities courses. With their ‘job-ready graduates package’ which passed the Senate in 2020, the federal government is increasing the costs of humanities degrees by up to 113 per cent, with the putative aim of encouraging students to study a course “more likely” to lead to a job.
At the time, federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said, “If you want to study history, also think about studying teaching. If you want to study philosophy, also think about studying a language. If you want to study law, also think about studying IT.”
That the Morrison government cares deeply about the job prospects of young people is one way of viewing the new funding package. However, given humanities and STEM graduates have near-identical employment rates, an alternate interpretation might be that a conservative government would prefer a citizenry that cannot engage critically with the status quo and will not question facts presented to them.
The Business Council of Australia lists the top employability skills as problem-solving, critical thinking, empathy, flexibility, leadership, communication, teamwork and decision-making. It is also clear that employers need people with data skills, but if that data cannot be analysed and communicated effectively, it is useless. Human traits such as curiosity and creativity have never been more important as technology and AI advance. Big data has big blind spots. We must understand what we are doing, how the technological decisions of the present will impact the future, and how human biases leak into programming.
It is a shame that the current policy-makers in cabinet are so hamstrung by their own ideology. Their attempts to manipulate student tertiary choices in the name of ‘job-ready graduates’ not only ignores the skills that employers are really looking for, it reduces our capacity as a nation to avoid the dangers the United States is now facing at the hands of some its own, misinformed citizens.
Dr Marie Clark is a careers counsellor and leading teacher at Maffra Secondary College.