Soft skills degrees without clear vocational path, or which lead into over-serviced areas, are currently in vogue. Media Studies departments agonise over intertextuality and honours degrees culminate in unpaid internships while successful graduates earn big money which they need only partially repay.

Andrew Norton argues that a user-pays system would achieve better outcomes at a significantly reduced cost. But with studies demonstrating that art classes make better medicos, are the humanities really non-vocational? Is education a public good, with intangible benefits to society that go far beyond the earning capacity of individual graduates?

Julie Hare is Higher Education Editor at The Australian. She has 15 years experience as an education journalist, numerous awards for writing and editing and an Arts degree from the University of Newcastle.

Andrew Norton directs the higher education program at the Grattan Institute. He is the author of Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education (Grattan, 2012) and Mapping Australian higher education, 2013 version (Grattan, 2013). Until August 2011 he was a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and editor of its quarterly journal, Policy.