Media Release

August  8, 2013

An Arts Degree – the passport to a changing world

What do lawyer John Denton, comedian Jane Turner, pollster Gary Morgan and Publisher Robert Sessions have in common?

They and many other like-minded folk are supporters of Humanities 21 an independent Melbourne organisation that champions the importance, in this changing and ambiguous world, of the broad and mind-enhancing humanities disciplines – literature, languages, philosophy, classics and history.

H21 was formed last year and celebrates its first membership drive at a reception on August 15 hosted by H21’s patron, the Governor of Victoria, Alex Chernov. H21 will also host Melbourne Writers Festival sessions on August 25 and 31, about the humanities and their cultural, social and economic impact.

So why should the humanities, traditionally the foundation of a well rounded education, need champions?

Because the drift to vocational education at tertiary level has become a stampede in recent decades, with CEOs favouring those with practice-based degrees in fields like engineering, commerce, accounting, law and IT, says H21 founder and president, Peter Acton.

This has been at the expense of the humanities, which are underfunded, and considered to be elitist and expendable.

‘But now CEOs increasingly complain of being unable to find people who can think outside the box, who can strategise, innovate and take a flexible approach – all the skills, together with researching, communicating clearly and constructing a well formulated argument – that one picks up in an arts degree and which are essential in a changing world’, says Mr Acton, who studied Classics at Oxford University.

His own experience, including 20 years with The Boston Consulting Group in Europe and as Managing Partner of the Melbourne office, convinced him of the contribution that a humanities degree can make to commerce and to life generally.

And it is not only Mr Acton and H21’s growing band of supporters who think so. Oxford University Humanities Division recently surveyed 11,000 alumni who graduated between 1960 and 1989. They found that humanities graduates played a large role in employment sectors such as media, legal services and finance, that contributed to growth of the UK economy in the 70s and 80s, around the time humanities subjects began to fade from favour.

Arts Emergency Service, formed recently in the UK to support arts graduates, points to higher levels of professional advancement attained by Arts as opposed to vocational graduates.

And Australia has its own examples – Germaine Greer, Nick Cave, Cate Blanchett, Tim Costello and Prime Ministers Hawke, Gillard and Rudd have all used their arts degrees to their strong advantage.

The problem is global, Mr Acton says.

‘It’s worse in Australia though, because we have always been more vocationally-oriented, meaning we have less capacity to absorb further funding cuts to the humanities.’

‘But there is something in the ether, a backlash which is giving traction to H21’, he adds, citing a well subscribed e-newsletter covering the many humanities events around town, commerce-related seminars tailored by humanities academics for leading CBD companies, and a mentoring program for arts students and graduates in development.


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