Arts and humanities courses were once the most popular in the country. Then, over a decade ago, something happened to change that: a financial crisis and a bruising economic recession saw students (and parents) take fright and flee towards courses which – on the surface, at least – seemed to offer better employment and wage prospects.
Science and engineering points rose as arts points fell year-on-year, and the trend seemed irreversible. But, last year, points for arts and humanities courses shot up, with rises across the board for broad-based arts courses, social science and journalism.
What’s behind this surge, and is it here to stay?
Career guidance experts are telling their students what they’re hearing from employers: they want college graduates of any discipline who are creative, critical thinkers with good analytical and research skills, cultural understanding and communication skills.
Crucially, employers want graduates who are flexible and able to adapt to the type of changing circumstances – such as a sudden move to working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic or, in the future, other unforeseen global shocks – that are expected to become increasingly common. They want graduates who can pivot to new roles within a company and are open to learning. And arts graduates, who have all these key skills, are much harder to replace with robots.
Although the growth of continuous assessment at third level means that today’s arts student has less time to get involved in clubs and societies than previous generations, they still have significantly less contact and teaching hours than, for instance, architecture or engineering students, where the days tend to be longer.
Arts students have traditionally used this time to join or set up clubs and societies. This is a chance for those students to discover what they do and don’t like, to develop teamwork and leadership skills, to organise events and overcome challenges and – forgetting about employment and CVs for a moment – to grow as a person and make lifelong friends with similar interests.
Research shows that almost half of Ireland’s graduates work in roles that are unrelated to their original qualification, and this is expected to grow in the coming years. All of this change is, once again, making arts graduates more attractive.
What do arts students study? And where?
Arts degrees are usually the broadest of all college courses, with a huge number of subjects on offer.
At Trinity College Dublin, the long-running two subject moderatorship allows students to choose two subjects from ancient and medieval history and culture, archaeology, classical civilisation, drama and theatre studies, economics, English, film, geography, history, history of art and architecture, Irish, foreign languages (including but not limited to French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish), linguistics, Middle Eastern and Islamic civilisation, Middle Eastern and European languages and cultures (with language options including Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish), music, philosophy religion, sociology and more.
At University College Dublin, you’ll find similar subjects, as well as Irish folklore or – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly for an arts degree – maths as part of the long-established three-year degree.
The resurgence of arts courses is also due to expanded offerings in the various third-level colleges. UCD’s relatively new humanities course, for instance, sees students apply to one of 14 distinct courses including classics, English and history; English with creative writing; European studies, global studies; Irish studies; music, film and drama or teanga, litríocht agus aistriúchán (Irish language, literature and translation). This four-year course includes a one-year internship or study abroad option. UCD also has a four-year bachelor of arts degree in modern languages.
At NUI Galway, the arts courses allow students to combine their arts subject with another speciality; these include children's studies, creative writing, human rights, performing arts, film studies or journalism.
How much do arts students earn?
Now, the slightly more mixed news. At first glance, various reports indicate that arts graduates are not among the highest earners.
A 2021 survey from the Higher Education Authority revealed that arts graduates have the lowest salaries within nine years of graduation, starting off at just below €28,000. By contrast, the average full-time earnings for ICT or technology graduates, engineering and education graduates were, respectively, €40,500, €40,845 and €40,300.
These figures, however, do not account for the fact that graduates from the three highest-paid areas tend to leave third-level with the qualifications they need, whereas arts and humanities graduates are much more likely to take on a postgraduate degree and, in turn, evidence shows that postgraduates boost their earnings with this further study.
Where do arts students work?
Shake any company and arts and humanities graduates will fall out the window. You’ll find them in the civil service, the creative arts including music, drama and literature, in business, education, law, politics, information and communication technology, journalism, marketing and PR, teaching – and anywhere that requires people who can think and are adaptable.