Reporter Brett McLeod shares how an Arts degree transformed his career as the government reveals course price hikes

Monday, July 6, 2020 - 10:23

By Brett McLeod • Presenter and Reporter

Opinion: A three-year humanities degree is set to more than double in cost for students, from about $20,000 now to $43,500. Here, Brett McLeod writes about why his arts degree didn't just lead to a job, it led to a career.

Somewhere in a dusty stack of papers in my bedroom are two pieces of paper from my childhood I'm proud of.  One is my Herald certificate I got in Grade 2 (I could swim 25 yards – without stopping!) The other is my Arts degree.

The Federal Government is today announcing it's set to DOUBLE the cost of humanities and communications degrees. Here's Education Minister Dan Tehan: "Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future." The corollary being arts and humanities are not supplying your job-making skills.

Back in the early 80's when I was studying at RMIT University, in the men's toilets (bear with me, we won't be here long), the loo paper holders routinely had graffiti etched above them: "Arts degrees, take one".

So, even then, they didn't enjoy a stellar reputation. It has long been argued Arts doesn't really teach you anything of  practical value, beyond making sure your dole forms are filled out in grammatically correct fashion.

But here's the thing: an Arts degree was brilliant for me. Having trudged through 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, suddenly the world opened up.

I learned how to dive into subjects, argue in class, spend days lost in projects.  I learned how to love learning. Also I made lifetime friendships and got my first serious girlfriend thanks to Arts. Really, what's not to like?

Professionally, my Arts degree literally got me where I am. My final semester work experience was in the newsroom at 3AW. I was offered a job – and almost four decades later, I'm still in the industry.

Let me tell you about three young adults I know: one is a criminal lawyer, another a manager and tech guru in Silicon Valley, another is a theatre performer. They are my children and all of them started with BA's.

Want further proof of the value of an Arts degree  – the dollar value? Deloitte Access Economics have crunched the numbers. They found people with an undergraduate humanities degree can expect to earn a lifetime earnings premium of $200,000 over a high school graduate.

Bear in mind that most young people today can expect to have 17 – that's seventeen – different jobs in their lifetime. Employability is boosted by transferable skills.

Let me quote the head of the Entrepreneurial Centre at Melbourne University's Faculty of Business and Economics: "My later study (an MBA & a PhD in business) were underpinned by the skills I learned in my BA - problem solving, creativity, literacy & critical thinking." This man has a CV including senior roles at Holden, Telstra and the AFL.

Professor Colin McLeod quoted above is my big brother.  Despite that, I think he's absolutely right.

Few of us know where the work journey will take us, but Arts give you an excellent start in navigating the map.

Also, be wary of old buggers (ie my age or above) who say you don't need a degree to get a job. That's mostly said by people who haven't tried to get a job in recent years.

An Australia Institute report found a third of jobs in 2018 required at least a bachelor's degree, expected to rise to 50 per cent over the next five years.

I recently returned to RMIT, this time advising the journalism program. It's much more difficult with the online limitations of COVID-19. But seeing the enthusiasm and hard work of the (scarily) sharp minds of the current crop of journalism students is inspiring.

And challenging – they're putting those critical thinking skills to work on me. I don't know if you can put a dollar value on it, but the ability to question others, especially those in authority, is a critical skill in democracy.

I'll leave you with a fun fact: Education minister Dan Tehan is a lettered man with master's qualifications in Foreign Affairs and International relations.

He started with an Arts degree.

Brett McLeod is a Nine journalist and adjunct professor of journalism at RMIT University.


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