Much public discourse tends to focus on the ways new technologies are reshaping industries and changing society at large and, in academic circles, that inevitably stirs debate around a whole range of issues.
In particular, it raises questions about the place of arts and humanities in higher education and, when faced with ever-present competition for funding, how to justify the importance of these subjects in both economic and intrinsic terms.
To get to the heart of the matter, Lingnan University and the Centre for Global Higher Education are co-organising a series of webinars to give leading scholars and policy experts the opportunity to put their case. The talks will cover social, political and economic aspects, touching on everything from the graduate labour market and employer needs to broader considerations of the kind of life people around the world should be looking to live.
In the first of the series, Professor Joshua Mok Ka Ho, Vice-President of Lingnan University, spoke about the role of liberal arts education in Asia and where it may be necessary for universities to “repurpose” their approach.
He began by noting the growing impact of geopolitics and neo-liberalism on certain areas of higher education, which made for challenging times. Also, some would say there is an over-emphasis now on economic purposes and too much stress on vocational training for students. This has led to education in the arts and humanities being questioned and too often undervalued when it comes to job searches amid the STEM-dominated outlook of many of today’s recruiters and government officials.
“So much emphasis has been put on making our graduates become vocationally prepared for the labour market,” Mok said. “Graduate salaries and the skills needs of employers are increasingly used as markers for educational quality and the mechanisms of institutional regulation. But I think we have to strike a balance between STEM subjects and the art and humanities, and [carefully reconsider] what kind of graduates we need to prepare for an uncertain future.”
For this to happen, there would have to be a rethink of some performance indicators and a concerted effort to reframe the overall discussion.
Within the broader context, arts and humanities subjects continue to face criticism, regulatory pressures, and reduced funding. As a result, they are often described as being in a state of “crisis” even by sympathetic commentators and advocates.
In a fast-moving digital economy, students and their parents foresee difficulties in explaining the choice of a liberal arts degree to prospective employers. And postgraduate researchers can struggle to identify the immediate value of their work when others choose to assess it simply in terms of “impact”, innovation or relevance to specific industries. But there is more to it than that.
“We strongly believe that one reason for higher education is to prepare our younger generation for the professional world,” Mok said. “But at the same time, there is an important obligation to prepare them to become global citizens and caring leaders.”
He indicated, for instance, that students of arts and humanities acquire skills and know-how which are just as important for success in a world where co-operation, collaboration and interdependence can’t be ignored.
Economic welfare is one thing, but the new geopolitics is changing the way states and people think and how businesses operate. That is also changing what they expect from higher education, something which can be viewed in the context of “realist” international relations theory or from the perspective of individuals planning ahead for the next few years.
“In a divided world, where we hear about decoupling and the reversal of globalisation, education has to bridge the gap.” Mok said. “As educators and researchers, we have to promote a better understanding of civilisations, cultures, history and different systems around the world.”
The economic purpose of a university should not be downplayed, but there was always the vital element of human betterment. This meant giving students a broad knowledge base, transferable skills, social awareness, and a commitment to life-long learning. With these and other attributes, they could become responsible citizens ready to face and manage change and, in a certain sense, even ambassadors for peace.
“We need to create an environment, an ecosystem which further enhances student capacities and capabilities, not just focusing on the labour market,” Mok said. “That is why we need to revitalise the role of arts and humanities in higher education.”