Talk of the “skills gap” dominates public discourse about undergraduate employability. On one hand, employers are suggesting that they cannot find applicants with the right skillsets and name many types of transferable skills that they aren’t finding. On the other, universities claim that they are producing graduates with varied transferable skills and therefore should not be beholden to the whims of the labour market. Students and government are caught in the middle with a tremendous amount of misinformation and no evidence to begin setting things straight.
In asking for more evidence, many sector stakeholders have suggested that we need to find better ways of evaluating transferable skill development. For some, this drive comes out of a presumption that undergraduate work is inconsequential to students’ long term success and rests on the assumption that most students do not retain much of the content they are tested on.
There’s another layer of influence coming from outside of the sector though: the idea that the labour market is saturated with unqualified undergraduates. Within this landscape the sentiment that a Bachelor of Arts is no longer a worthwhile pursuit grows with the help of media “pundits” who disparage the value of a liberal arts education and the study of contemporary culture. Some universities are even experiencing severe shrinkage in their humanities departments.
I myself have taken some courses that seem a little out there; things like “Performance and Performativity”, “Television and Society”, and “The Nature of Texts: From Slang to Formal Discourse”. Courses with titles like this seem to lack sustenance and couldn’t possibly have helped me become “intellectually responsible.” The lack of meaningful content aside, courses like these don’t deliver valuable skill development opportunities. Right?
Wrong. To boil down the outcomes of a university education to either discipline-specific content or skills brings the sector to a scary place. Especially in the context of liberal arts or humanities.
Whether you would prefer to collectively refer to these disciplines as general arts, liberal arts, or humanities, I’m thinking about History, the Classics, Anthropology, Theatre and Film, etc. From here on out, I’ll just say humanities. And if my discipline-bias wasn’t showing already, I must disclose I graduated with a BA in Communication Studies.
In my experience, my skill development was tightly bound to my understanding of the content. Most of the skills I learned in university developed through the application of knowledge gained, so without that foundational knowledge I simply could not move forward in my studies. An important part of OUSA’s advocacy work is knowing who is doing the politicking, and who is being politicked. My knowledge of Goffman’s theory of persona is inseparable from my ability to make this connection and work to influence political characters.
This is all to say, when I hear that skills are not just more important than content, but that content is actually irrelevant, I get apprehensive. A feeling of suspicion grows deep in my stomach and I perceive the speaker to mean:
- “Your degree doesn’t matter”
- “Research about how humans interact doesn’t matter”
- “Learning about power structures doesn’t matter”
The courses I previously mentioned were all required for my degree and provided me with formative learning experiences. Without the actual content of these course, I would be less equipped to evaluate public policy. I would be even less equipped to suggest policy changes. What good is a research and policy analyst if they don’t know what to look for or where to look for it?
It is primarily in the humanities where we--I mean the collective, societal we--do the important work of decoding the messages that we send to each other on micro and macro scales. This is important (to me) because the humanities teach us about dominant ideologies using powerful theoretical frameworks. It was in my undergraduate work where I learned a language that gave meaning and validation to my lived experiences. It was in this work where I learned to name the external factors that shaped the development of my identity as a first generation university student and woman of colour on a roller coaster ride to a new social standing. It was in this work that I learned how to name and describe the invisible ideologies that make my identity and choices targets for discrimination and criticism.
It was in this work where I learned these things could be named.
It’s both the absorption of content and its application that make me good at my job. Sure, I’ve had some help articulating the skills I developed, but I didn’t get this in class. Philosophical discussions about hard-to-swallow topics are what really shaped me and give me grounds upon which to make real contributions to--and to change--the public sector.
In the humanities content is very important; to even entertain the idea that it is not is irresponsible. To devalue the personal and intellectual growth granted to students in the humanities also devalues marginalized experiences; something my studies taught me the powers-that-be have been doing for centuries.
A university education does not provide either knowledge or skills, it provides knowledge and skills. My ability to apply the knowledge I gained in university may be hard to quantify but that does not make the content itself irrelevant. Sure, we need to do better at evaluating skill development and employability, but this cannot occur at the expense of acknowledging, naming, and changing dominant perspectives. Disregarding these things maintains the status quo and takes away students’ opportunity to challenge the world they live in, rather than just operate within it.
OUSA Research Analyst