Adrian Athique: Arts students vital as any to recovery

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Broad skill set valuable in global economic environment.

Students are best to pursue their interests before fat pay packets.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Students are best to pursue their interests before fat pay packets. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There is a broad public discussion under way about the need to increase our investments in the sciences.

It has been argued that we must do so in order to provide New Zealand with an armoury of innovations that will improve our national prosperity and drive economic recovery in the face of a global recession. This argument is sound.

What is more problematic is the growing sense that the primary role of our universities is to deliver commercial outcomes, and to steer young people into lucrative salary ranges. Science, it has been argued, can do this while the arts cannot.

I would beg to differ. My great-uncle was a respected scientist, and his children and grandchildren followed in his footsteps. It brought them here to New Zealand. None of them earns an inflated salary, and that is not what motivates their passion for science and the contribution that it makes.

It is, of course, entirely natural for the public to turn to universities in the face of a global recession, and the uncertainties that affect us all as a result. Science, however, could not have prevented the global recession, nor can it solve it alone. This is a human catastrophe, and it was not caused by a lack of six-figure salaries.

Universities are in the business of future-proofing our society by transferring valuable knowledge, thinking long term and fostering new ideas. This is the bigger game, and that is why university councils remain independent from the government of the day.

Going forward, we will need technical and scientific skills certainly, and business acumen too. We will also need people who understand patterns of human behaviour, who understand what motivates people and who can learn from historical successes and mistakes.

In the commercial domain, we will need people who understand the mixture of societies and cultures that make up the global economy, who can consider both sides of an argument and who know how to communicate and inspire. In short, we will need a small army of arts graduates to put their shoulder to the wheel.

The scope of an arts education reaches to every corner of human endeavour, and within that framework, students engage their passion for creative thinking, informed debate and solving problems on the basis of evidence.

The BA is the most thoroughly road-tested of all university qualifications and, during the most prosperous decades of our modern history, all of our major businesses and public institutions were staffed with arts graduates. A quick look through the honours roll of the great and the good will demonstrate this pedigree.

But "forget about the legacy of arts education, and the pressing needs of the future", we are told, "tell us instead about the salaries". Let's be clear. The arts, as a whole, does no worse than the sciences in seeing its graduates build financial security around their lives.

In any case, if everyone charges into any single field with their minds focused purely on a salary outcome, they will inevitably find out that demand outstrips supply. Most will be disappointed and the salaries in that field will be driven down by the oversupply of labour.

That is simple economics, and that is why our best advice to young people is to pursue their own interests, back their own talents and seek opportunities to make those skills count for themselves and for the rest of us. I have rarely met any outstanding professional who built their career around a salary target.

Ultimately, we need all kinds of talent, and no country can afford to be a one-trick pony. It will fall to our brightest young people, studying across all fields of knowledge, to bring back prosperity.

Dr Adrian Athique is chairman of arts in the faculty of arts and social sciences, University of Waikato.

- NZ Herald

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