Science is cool and sexy and you can earn loads of money. That’s the laser-guided message targeted at school students in recent years, with concerted efforts to increase the uptake of students doing science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) degrees.
The message has had some success, with points for science courses shooting up over the past decade while those for most arts courses have stayed static or fallen. Points for arts courses have fallen to a new low as students question the value of those degrees.
The dusty old cliche about arts graduates working in McDonald's may be exhausted. In recent years, however, it has taken a new twist: arts graduates earn less money than any others. A Higher Education Authority survey, released last May, placed 2014 arts graduates at the bottom of the pile for earnings, with only 8 per cent of them earning €29,000 or more compared to 62 per cent of computer science and engineering graduates and 46 per cent of health and welfare graduates.
So just what is the point of an arts degree and why would anyone want to do one?
Tony Donohue, head of education and social policy at employers' group Ibec, says arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) degrees are valued by employers.
So what explains the pay gap?
“That survey relates to the class of 2014,” he says. “With arts graduates, it may take them longer to get there, but when they do, they reach senior positions within organisations. Starting salaries are not as good, but after five years arts graduates can and do earn good money.”
Donohue says employers recognise that arts courses, including medieval history and philosophy, develop critical thinking, analytical, logic and presentation skills and communication.
Arts graduates who have a foreign language are also in high demand: someone with a degree in, for example, German or Spanish with philosophy, will be snapped up for work.
“These degrees offer a way of assessing evidence, coming to a sound judgment and communicating it,” says Donohoe.
“Take technology: yes, we need scientists and engineers to create and operate it, but arts and humanities graduates, with their understanding of the human condition and human experience, help to apply it.
"Apple, for instance, is not just a tech company, it is about design and tapping into people's desires and aspirations, so arts graduates are crucial."
In the HEA survey, 34 per cent of arts graduates said their degree was not relevant to their employment, compared with 17 per cent of social science graduates, and just 4 per cent of computer science and ICT graduates.
On the face of it, however, it’s an irrelevant question for a humanities graduate. Of course, a qualification in geography or linguistics might not seem very relevant to a job in the civil service or NGO sector. Very few philosophy graduates will sit around stroking their chins and pondering life’s mysteries; they’re more likely to be working in financial services.
Daniel Carey, professor of English at NUI Galway, is also chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance, which was established two years ago as an all-island body to advocate for humanities.
“Some people are drawn to the humanities because they are animated by English and enthusiastic about engaging with the world,” he says. “It’s why, despite journalism being such a precarious profession, so many people still want to work in it.
“Ultimately young people know that the old days, where you trained in banking and worked and died in the bank, are gone. They know you will have a variety of roles in life and that what really matters is being flexible, entrepreneurial, culturally aware and able to communicate.”
Both Donohue and Carey say that students on arts courses should be given more support to understand how their degrees translate into real, valuable skills and to communicate this to employers.
Carey says arts graduates have expertise in how society works and that no organisation of any kind can function without them.
Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, believes we should not be pitching one discipline against another.
“Art and an understanding of history matter, and scientists and civil engineers need arts graduates to communicate, mediate and understand,” he says.
“But it shouldn’t come down to an assembly line for jobs: universities help produce well-rounded citizens, friends, parents, carers, neighbours. That’s why arts and science degrees matter equally.”
Top of class: Arts outperforms science and tech in universities
Humanities departments generally outperformed science and technology subjects in Irish universities during 2015/2016, according to the QS World University Rankings, which found humanities and social science subjects outperformed the university's own ranking.
Trinity College Dublin was ranked at number 78 but its English, modern language and politics departments ranked at 32, 39 and 43 respectively, while four humanities subjects at UCD ranked in the top 100 as did four subjects in social sciences and management.
Jane Ohlmeyer, a professor of modern history at Trinity, is also chair of the Irish Research Council (IRC) and a strong advocate for the humanities and social sciences.
She says that while there is a balance in the funding awarded by the IRC, the entire system is "chronically underfunded and Ireland desperately needs to invest in frontier research. It's not about arts, humanities and social science versus Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths], but basic and frontier versus applied research. Austerity has knocked our research ecosystem out of kilter."
While Science Foundation Ireland has a budget of €160 million, the Irish Research Council, which is the only body providing support to humanities researchers, has a combined budget of about €30 million to cover the sciences and humanities.
Even at European level, only 6 per cent of funding awarded under Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s major research funding programme, is allocated to arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) subjects.
“Humanities researchers have something important to say about all of the great societal challenges including health and wellbeing, technology, the environment or security,” Ohlmeyer says.
She also believes creativity is a key skill.
“Stem alone cannot address some of the world’s most challenging problems, many of which are human problems. The role of the arts and humanities has never been more important,” she says.
No regrets: 'It helped broaden my mind and develop critical thinking'
Joanne Sweeney-BurkE, who received a BA from NUI Galway, is chief executive of the Digital Training Institute. She studied English, sociology and politics and has a master's in digital marketing and a master's in journalism.
“Arts was the route to be a journalist and that’s what I wanted to be. I felt the subjects would help broaden my mind and develop critical thinking,” she says.
“At school, I was super at regurgitating what teachers spoon-fed us, so I got quite a shock when I arrived at NUIG and got a D in my first English essay.
“I couldn’t understand it. But after my three-year degree I was very aware of why that first essay bombed and how my own critical thinking, analysis and opinions had formed.
“I worked as a journalist for three years before moving into communications. I was CEO of Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce at 26 and CEO of a media company at 31 and self-employed at 32. I have my own podcast and write for the Social Media Examiner.
“Now my daughter is in her final year of an accountancy degree at NUIG. She claims she will be earning more money than me soon, but that’s the constant argument between arts and non-arts graduates.
“I never wanted the same career for life, and an arts degree is great because you can do anything with it. I have no regrets about it.”
Broad skills: 'If you like learning how the world works, it's a good option'
Feargal O'Connell, who received a BA from UCD in 2001, is country director for Concern in South Sudan. He studied sociology and politics and has a master's in conflict security and development from the University of Leeds.
“I didn’t have a definite career path laid out for myself during the Leaving Cert –and that’s appropriate for an 18-year-old,” he says.
“What I did know was that I was interested in current affairs, politics and global issues, so a liberal arts degree made sense.
“It wasn’t that clear at the time, but now I realise that an arts degree taught me critical reasoning, analytical thinking and the ability to see a problem from multiple angles, as well as how to write coherently and concisely.
“It helped enormously in my work with Concern, which is varied. I have responsibility for the overall operation which includes admin, HR, procurement and communications.
“The idea of a job for life is gone; you will change careers many times. What you need are broad skills like problem-solving and interacting with people.
“A broad-based arts degree is a good option because, with postgraduates now expected by many employers, you can specialise down the line.
“If you like writing or learning how the world works, then it’s a good option.”