Rethink, Reskill, Reboot: What’s a ‘Useless’ Degree Anyway?

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The image that spawned a thousand memes

For quite some time it has been axiomatic that there are certain degrees which are unlikely to help you secure a job. Career Addict furnishes us with a revealing top 10 list of ‘useless’ degrees which includes the culinary arts, the liberal arts, and communications. While the Career Addict article is not as brazenly dismissive of these career paths as other sources, it leaves the reader in no doubt that you are selling yourself short by pursuing these degrees and that you would be better off with a STEM degree.

Last week the UK government’s National Careers Service unveiled a brand new quiz that one can take, which (according to the website) will help you identify your interests, motivations and preferences. As you may have guessed from the above image, the quiz generally encourages people with non-STEM qualifications to retrain to acquire them (‘Cyber First’). You can take the quiz here if you would like to see what the UK government thinks of your life choices.

The quiz has spawned all sorts of amusing revelations, such as Dr. Woods (PhD in history):

Or Rafaella Marcus, a theater director:

Yet at the heart of this flawed, excessively simplistic quiz is something much less funny, the continuing denigration of the arts, humanities and social sciences in our culture and which evinces considerable hypocrisy. For example, in the Brexit debate the question of fishing in British waters by EU nations has been raised repeatedly with UK fishermen hoping that Brexit will reignite an industry that has been shrinking for many years. Yet when we examine the figures we find that the UK video games industry contributed approx. £3.86bn in 2018 and directly employed 20,430 people. While the fishing industry contributed £1.4bn and employs 11,700 fishers, yet rarely (if ever) is it suggested that fishing is a useless profession that is slowly dying, and that fishermen should be realistic and retrain into future proofed occupations.

You may suggest that the comparison is laughable, after all fishing serves a vital role in the economy by providing food (and food security), but I would remind our reader that on the Career Addict list of ‘useless’ degrees presented earlier that the Culinary Arts featured prominently. Apparently food security is only important when it can be leveraged for political gain in trade talks. The truth is that fishing occupies a specific place in the cultural imaginary of Brexit Britain which has nothing to do with its economic contribution and everything to do with the imagined recapturing of sovereignty from those horrible EU fishermen who have pillaged British waters.

It is true that about 60% of fish caught in British waters are done so by non-British fishers, but I would encourage the reader to ask why market logic is not applied to them the same way it is to poets or dancers? Why are British fishermen not told to innovate or work harder? Why are they not told to get a second job or a side hustle? Especially considering that video games make twice the contribution to the UK’s economy, and unlike fishing will only grow in the future.

The quiz then is flawed for the same reason that most Active Labour Market Policies are flawed, it does not take account of the sustainability of the suggested work or the realism of people’s everyday lives. A dancer can no more retrain into a cybersecurity expert than a fisherman can retrain into a video game developer. We require more humane and gentle solutions to the problems of our changing global economy than to simply demand that people retrain to accommodate arbitrary goals set by the government. With respect to the denigration of certain industries Ash Sarkar put it quite elegantly:

The dancers have as much right to dance as the fishermen do to fish, we’re either all in this together or we’re not – but caution should always be exercised when we draw the boundary of what constitutes a ‘useless’ profession or degree, after all it might be us next.

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