What use is an arts degree?
Broadcaster Gráinne Seoige
Esoteric philosophers, unemployed writers and ready-made civil servants: just some of the stereotypes of arts graduates. So what use is an arts degree today?
Employers are crying out for science, engineering and technology graduates, and students are responding to their call. In the past five years, they have increasingly gravitated towards science, engineering and technology (SET) courses.
CAO points for science have risen and are expected to rise again this year. But humanities – arts – and social-science courses remain resilient, still drawing the lion’s share of students.
A recent survey of more than 400 companies, with a total of more than 140,000 employees, showed that just 12 per cent of employers have taken on humanities graduates within the past year; only a further 12 per cent have given jobs to social-science graduates.
At the same time, there are significant skills shortages in a number of science, engineering and technology-related areas. Employers are questioning whether we have too many arts graduates.
How many people are studying arts? Humanities and social-science courses are, by far, still the most popular in the State. University College Dublin’s arts degree course draws the largest student numbers. Twenty-two per cent of CAO applicants in 2012 plumped for a humanities or social-science course as their first preference, down from 24 per cent in 2011.
The second-most-popular subject choice, business and administration courses, took just under 22 per cent of first preferences.
Science is the third-most-popular subject choice – but the number choosing science courses as their first preference on the CAO form has risen steadily over the past five years, from 10.6 per cent in 2008 to 14.4 per cent in 2011 and a record high of 16 per cent in 2012.
This increasing demand for science courses has not exactly led students to desert humanities.
A total of 12,012 students (26 per cent) accepted places on humanities or social-science courses in 2012, well in excess of the 6,968 (15 per cent) who accepted a place on science or applied- science degree courses.
Why are so many students still choosing arts?
Bachelor-of-arts degrees are incredibly diverse and encompass a wide range of courses, including journalism, marketing, history, English, psychology and languages. Humanities students could also have BAs in accounting and finance.
Many students choose humanities because they don’t know what career path to choose, but not all are so undecided. Sinéad Slattery, a first-year arts student at UCD, opted for the degree because it gave her the option to study languages. “I have a chance to travel or work abroad for a year or two after college,” she says. “I think a lot of people choose arts because the degree has subjects that they want to study, and they come out with a broad set of transferable skills.”
After an arts degree . . . what now?
A humanities education is, by and large, a broad qualification, so career experts advise graduates in search of good, long-term employment prospects to go on to a specialised postgraduate degree. These invariably cost thousands of euro in fees. A primary degree in humanities or social science should generally be seen as a gateway degree, says Dr Edward Herring, dean of arts at NUI Galway.
The Hunt Report, published in early 2011, called for a changed approach to education where primary degrees are flexible, gateway awards that teach transferable skills. “The situation for arts students is no different from many students,” says Herring, who points out that graduates with basic science degrees are also likely to go on to postgraduate study. “Such degrees are perceived to be more vocationally oriented, but, in truth, most chemistry graduates do not – and do not wish to – become research chemists.”