Degrees of Difficulty: The Labour Market Problems of Arts and Social Science Graduates

That the Australian higher education system is comprehensively rigged against students is evident from the current oversupply of graduates in the humanities and social sciences and its impact on their employment prospects.

Since the 1970s, graduates in the humanities and social science fields have been doing poorly in the labour market. Recent figures from the Graduate Careers Council of Australia show graduates from the humanities and social sciences are around twice as likely to be unemployed as others in the labour market. The proportion who are in the labour market but unemployed or underemployed four months after completion has exceeded 30% for the last decade.

In addition to these poor employment prospects, salaries for graduates in these fields is declining relative to Average Weekly Earnings (AWE). For example, in 1999 humanities graduates are only earning 74% of AWE. Despite this, the universities have continued to increase the number of students commencing degrees in these areas, with the annual number rising by nearly 60% since 1989.

In order to increase the employability of these graduates, the government needs to remove the distorting elements of its higher education policies.

Creating markets in higher education is the most effective method of minimising the mismatch between graduates and jobs.

Deregulating fees and abolishing the student places quota would create a competitive environment where universities are forced to look at their Arts degrees and whether they teach skills that make graduates employable.

Andrew Norton is Director of the Liberalising Learning program at The Centre for Independent Studies and former Higher Education Adviser to the Federal Education Minister Dr David Kemp.