Liberal Arts Education in Europe: Making or Breaking Borders

The project aims to understand the significance of the development of liberal arts education in Europe by examining its impact on the hardening and softening of borders. To do so, it focuses on the relationship of liberal arts to the labour market and the world of work (which might be broadly interpreted as borders of employability). This will be examined by looking at how liberal arts degrees are valued in the labour market, especially in terms of labour precarity and educational/occupational mismatches among liberal arts graduates.

Despite the evident intrinsic value of the holistic, all-encompassing education offered by liberal arts, and its unquestionably beneficial outcomes, most evident in the cultivation of a self-aware, enlightened individual, it is uncertain to what extent such programmes can improve one’s position in a job market that is often thought to favour highly specialized knowledge over generic skills. On the other hand—and especially given the rapidly growing processes of globalisation—the ability of narrowly educated people to deal with global problems is becoming questionable. In a 21st-century environment that is increasingly interconnected and plural, a more profound and inclusive understanding of the world at large (especially in terms of its cultural, social, and political intricacies) might be a crucial prerequisite that can be obtained through liberal arts education.

The research will apply a mixed-methods approach, centring around interviews with students, teachers and alumni of European liberal arts programmes, as well as employers in relevant sectors. Additionally, quantitative methods shall be used to investigate educational/occupational mismatches among liberal arts graduates, and—if possible—their precarity in the labour market compared to graduates of applied programmes. 

Although there is a significant body of literature advocating the need for further development of liberal arts education in Europe, evidence in support of this notion remains mostly rhetorical. The research will try to overcome this gap by investigating whether the actual experiences of graduates support the case for liberal arts. Therefore, its innovativeness lies mostly in the desire to dig deeper into the real-life implications of liberal arts education and test whether its assumed capacity for softening the borders of employability is real.

As indicated above, the question of what kind of education is needed in order to equip graduates for the challenges of the 21st century has great social and academic significance. The growing precarity in the labour market, especially with regard to young people, along with the rapid social, cultural and technological changes add substantial relevance to the question of the role liberal arts could play in order to serve as a solution to the manifold problems of the contemporary world. 

Researcher: Milan Kovacevic (see profile)

Supervisors: Teun Dekker, Rolf van der Velden, Samuel Abraham (see profiles)