Should Engineers pay less than Arts students?

Engineers are a proud bunch. However, it’s easy to mistake pride for arrogance and this may lead students in other faculties to believe that engineers think they are better than everyone else.

To be honest I don’t blame them. After all, we have no shortage of contempt for other majors and in particular arts students. From the chants of unemployed, the unrelenting jokes, and the laughter whenever you hear about an arts student complain about how much “work” they have, it’s not too hard to see why some may think engineers are a bit full of themselves.

While most of this, is all in good fun, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that engineers don’t exactly see the value of a liberal arts education.

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones.

In response to increased demand for Higher education and a struggling economy, Florida governor Rick Scott, established the Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform with the goal of streamlining the state’s education system. In their executive order, he writes, “The state University System’s role in creating and transferring knowledge through research, teaching and service is of paramount importance to the transition of the state’s economy”.

When the task force submitted their recommendations to the state board of education, one recommendation was that the Universities explore the option of differential tuition among degree programs.

The suggested model aims to hold in-state tuition rates for “high-skill, high-wage, high-demand degree programs steady for at least three years. As tuition rises in these other “Non-Strategic” departments, the “strategic” ones will become more attractive to students and their enrolment will increase. By producing more employable graduates, the state will be able to lower unemployment rates, create jobs and create income for the state.

So who exactly are these strategic majors? While the task force did not officially recommend strategic majors, it did suggest possible categories, including 111 in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), 28 in globalization and 21 in health care. Not surprisingly, none of the core humanities made the list.

This idea of differential tuition has sparked a lot of debate.

One advocate for this approach is former richest man in the world, Bill Gates.

While not outright stating his support for this particular bill, Mr. Gates in a speech to the nations 50 governors, suggested that states waste taxpayers’ money by subsidizing public university departments that don’t produce the jobs of the future.
“The amount of subsidization is not that well correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state,” Gates declared. “Now in the past, it felt fine to just say, OK, we’re overall going to be generous with this sector. But in this era, to break down and really say, what are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future—you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes in higher education.”

While this is probably not what most students and faculty members in the liberal arts want to hear, as initiatives like this will take away students and funds from these departments, facts are facts. Based on countless studies, STEM graduates are much more likely to be employed, have higher starting salaries and contribute more to the state economy. If you were a governor whose potential re-election depended on the ability to show job growth in the short term it is easy to see why this approach would make a lot of sense.

But is this really the approach that we should be taking?

The answer to that question really depends whether the goal of a University education is to prepare students for the needs of the labour market by providing them with narrow but specific learning, or to meet the wider goals of personal development and provide a solid general education?

In the past, the Gates foundation has stated that, education has the duty to prepare students for work, life and citizenship.

The problem is that the approach that Mr. Gates is advocating only prepares students for one-third of those goals.

While the statistics show that STEM graduates have better immediate employment outlooks, research by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that liberal arts majors catch up with their STEM peers a decade after graduation, as skills gained from a liberal arts education – clear communication and critical thinking for example – become more valuable in many careers over time.

Furthermore, will making STEM tuition a bit cheaper really convince a student who would have otherwise studied art history or English literature to switch to physics or engineering?

The value of a University education lies not in narrow career specific training, which while initially effective, will not help the graduate if technology changes or if their job can be done cheaper overseas or by a computer. The value lies in developing an ability to think critically, be creative and develop your own thoughts and opinions all of which are skills developed in a liberal arts education.

This is not to say that STEM majors do not teach permanent, universal and transferable skills, but the ones we learn are different. Our degrees focus on teaching us to be analytical and problem-solve, not to communicate and think critically. You could say that the skills we learn are on opposite sides of the spectrum of those of arts majors.

It is the effective integration and cooperation of these two sides that lead to innovation and progress, socially and civically responsible citizens and in the long run, a healthier economy.

Take one of Bill Gates main competitors for example. In what would be his last product unveiling for Apple, Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad 2 said;

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices,”

Apple is not a tech powerhouse like Microsoft, but their market cap is about 2 times higher. What Apple does so well and what makes them so successful is their ability to assemble a wide range and array of resources and marry the best skills from multiple disciplines ranging from software architecture and electrical engineering to industrial design to marketing and law.

Accomplishing this does not come easy though; it requires a great degree of communication, problem solving, creativity, and cultural literacy.

These are not skills that come from one majors but rather from people with a myriad of different backgrounds.

Whether or not we are producing too many students in the humanities and liberal arts, or if these programs are rigorous enough is up for debate. However, we shouldn’t let short-sighted initiatives like those of the Blue Ribbon Task Force undervalue the importance of these majors or we risk losing them.

Kieran Mak

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Plumber’s Ledger or the Engineering Undergraduate Society of McGill University.

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