‘Why are Arts graduates unemployable?’

By Hasini Lecamwasam

‘Arts people’, since quite some time now, are being pushed to confront this question head-on. Since answers are only as good as the questions that prompt them, my aim here is to first unpack this question, then its proposed solution.

I find this question fallacious on three counts: First, it is underpinned by the assumption that what one studies directly corresponds to what one ends up doing for a living. Second, the label ‘unemployable’ tends to mask the many realities of the job market and ignore the structural conditions that shape the employment preferences of graduates. Third and last, it attempts to interpret the gains of tertiary education, purely in terms of its direct economic yield, demanding that we surrender our cognitive capacity to the narrow confines of market reasoning.

Three fallacies

Let me take up the first issue, well, first. Even a cursory look at how things function in society should make it clear that there is no strong correlation between one’s academic qualifications and career path, starting with getting hired. I recently ran into a Science graduate, working as the manager of a regional office of a well-known business establishment, specialising in bathware. There are many others of his background, engaged in employment, equally unrelated to their primary degree and its ‘skills’. The many agriculture graduates joining the civil service is another case in point. Throw into this mix all the highly questionable political appointments made in state institutions, and the skills-employment causation starts to seem dubious at best.

Secondly, subsuming all Arts graduates looking for a job, under the category of ‘unemployed,’ is a sweeping generalization which then leads to the conclusion that their degree, therefore, renders them ‘unemployable’. Drawing attention to the highly questionable nature of this conclusion is the general thrust of this piece, and has been the focus of many Kuppi Talks already. However, the premise itself is problematic. All Arts graduates (I am consciously sticking to the Arts, given the purview of this article) looking for a job are not necessarily unemployed. Recall how the President asked a 40-year-old Arts graduate asking for a job; ‘what have you been doing so far?’ Though there was no time for a response as the President was driven away, it stands to reason that this graduate did not remain ‘unemployed’ until 40. Because a government job offers more stability and security, graduates tend to prefer it, which alone qualifies as a ‘proper job’, given family/societal expectations and their own preferences modelled on them. Until then, however, they do other jobs to get by, sometimes in the informal economy, meaning to say they are, in fact, not as ‘unemployable’ or ‘unskilled’ as they are made out to be.

Thirdly, a minimalistic ‘economic’ understanding of education completely discounts its transformative potential. This all-engulfing market ethos eats into the critical capacity of the university, discrediting it as inconvenient, unnecessary noise, thereby further limiting the university’s prospects of being a site of critical reflection and action. Let not ‘critical reflection’ be understood as an overly romanticised notion put forth by universities – particularly their ‘Arts’ wings – to salvage their existence. To reiterate a message from the first Kuppi Talk, education’s objective is as much to instill an in-depth understanding of a subject, as it is to guide students to “come into a knowing of the world around us, known among other things, as social mobility and as an awareness of one’s place in the country, society and the world”. It is this awareness that will enable us to intervene and change it for the better. Education devoid of this intention is but a process of transmitting information that may just as easily be carried out by robots. Our tertiary education seems to already be well on its way there, with the emphasis on ‘skills’ and ‘competencies’ completely crowding out any possibility of focusing on producing graduates who are also able to think.

The skills narrative and STEM as a way out

When the question is framed by such fallacies, it is not in fairness possible to expect sound answers. As such, band aid solutions have been proposed, focusing on ‘skills’ as the cure-all for our unemployment problem, as though there are more jobs hungrily waiting to be filled by those with the necessary competencies than universities could possibly produce graduates for, if only they got the skills part right! The fact that these prescriptions are being made in the context of a pandemic makes them even more ridiculous. It takes no expert to realise that an already collapsing economy, reeling from the additional shock of Covid-19, can hardly even accommodate the existing workforce, let alone absorb additions to it, no matter how marketable their ‘skills’ are.

This ill-informed diagnosis has resulted in a policy package that is alarmingly short sighted. Presented as part of Sri Lanka’s 2020 budget, it has allocated funds to increase the STEM component of education on the national level by levelling out infrastructural differences between schools, establishing technical colleges and vocational institutes, as well as expanding university intakes to these subjects. What would be the result of these policy directives? We need not look beyond India to find actual examples of the cost of skewing the education system without ensuring that the economy is able to absorb all of these ‘skills’. Tamil Nadu, for example, houses more than 3000 colleges for engineering alone, and had in excess of 150,000 engineering graduates unemployed as of 2018, according to The Hindu. If a giant economy like India – that is known as an offshore IT skill market for First World countries – cannot absorb the graduates with the necessary ‘skill set’ produced by its system of education, trusting Sri Lanka to be able to do the job borders on pathological optimism.

Wrong answers to the wrong problems

Let it be unambiguously acknowledged that education (including higher education) is in need of urgent reform. However, reform has to be for the right reasons by those who have both a stake and an interest in the issue. As already discussed, the skills-employment nexus is erroneous on many levels. Therefore, attempting to answer the [un]employment question – which is itself fallacious – primarily through educational reform, rather than focusing on diversifying and expanding employment opportunities, and radically reforming recruitment processes, will yield little fruit.

In all these debates a more fundamental peril may escape our attention, namely that market reasoning is increasingly coming to dictate the terms of our living. Education is but one example of this. What we need to be aware of is that as a Third World country we are simply an underdog economy catering to the whims and fancies of larger economic powers. So, when we attempt to model our education according to what the ‘market’ wants, it is worth asking whose market we are talking about. We obviously cannot operate in isolation, but should it be our aspiration to produce foot soldiers for the global economy? What if, like in the Indian example above (and like in most colonised countries during the late-colonial and immediate post-colonial times), stunting the economy too much in favour of foreign demand worsens our already deep economic crisis, every time there is a problem in the larger economies on which we are almost solely planning to rely?

The ‘unemployable Arts graduate’ would appear very differently in an economy managed very differently. For the economy to be managed differently, we need thinking that transcends market reasoning, and has healthy respect for that which is not of immediate and apparent economic value. So let us stop. And think.