What use is an arts degree?

Broadcaster Gráinne Seoige

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.”

Are arts students getting jobs?

A large portion of humanities and social-science graduates do indeed move on to postgraduate study. Statistics on postgraduate employment provide a truer representation of their prospects.

Among postgraduates of humanities and social science at Trinity College Dublin, 12 per cent are out of work. This compares with 11 per cent of health-science postgraduates and 25 per cent of engineering, maths and science graduates.

At NUI Galway, 9.4 per cent of 2011’s postgraduates from the college of arts, social sciences and Celtic studies are seeking employment. Just 3.9 per cent of business postgraduates are looking for work, while the figure for law postgraduates is 6.4 per cent. Among engineering postgraduates, 16.7 per cent are looking for work. Only 1.6 per cent of health-science postgraduates are without a job. The figure for science postgraduates is 11.6 per cent.

The University College Cork careers website ( ucc.ie/careers) contains possibly the most detailed and comprehensive list of career options for graduates from every humanities and social-science discipline. It is well worth a look.

Do employers value arts and social-science courses?

Jane Lorigan, the Irish-born CEO of Saongroup Europe, which owns the Irish recruitment website jobs.ie, says employers still value the wide education that a humanities degree provides.

“Arts degrees develop critical analysis and the abilities to look at a problem from different angles and present a cogent argument.”

Lorigan has noted the increased demand among employers for science, engineering and technology graduates. So why are students still opting for humanities and social-science courses in such large numbers?

“There’s a feeling, backed up by employer surveys, that the necessary changes are being made by Irish universities, and that the quality of Irish graduates has improved. But these changes haven’t completely filtered down to primary and postprimary level, so perhaps this is why more students are gravitating towards humanities and social science.”

So . . . any chance of a job?

Jobs.iehas CVs from 5,000 arts graduates, of a total of more than 52,000 live CVs. The largest group of people with BAs who submitted CVs to the site are now working in IT, closely followed by accounting. Neither of these is generally regarded as a traditional employment path for arts graduates, although some colleges offer a BA in accounting.

View from the ground: What do arts graduates think?

Jordan Balfry

BA, psychology and sociology, UL

“I think an arts degree is unfairly stereotyped as a qualification that won’t lead to a job. I always felt that an arts degree would provide me with a broad base from which to specialise.

“I was only 17 when I filled out the CAO. I could have chosen a job-friendly option like accounting, but now I would be searching for a job that I wouldn’t even want.

“As it happens, I went on a placement to Ghana through UL as part of my degree, and while I was there I started to think about a job in occupational therapy.

“Now I am applying to take a master’s course in the subject in the UK, so I will be studying for another two years or so. Most of my peers who did arts are doing something similar, or taking a year out to earn some money and consider which area to specialise in.

“I know that it won’t be easy to get a job here even when I have the occupational-therapy qualification, because the health services are not hiring at the moment. So, like pretty much every arts graduate I know, I am open to the idea of working abroad for a while.

“Every graduate now has to be willing to travel, and most of us realise that we may have to ride out the storm somewhere else before finally coming back and starting a career in Ireland.

“A few of my friends have gone looking for employment already, but it’s not for me. Even if I managed to find a place on a graduate-entry programme with one of the big companies hiring arts graduates, I think it would be rushing into a job, and that was never my intention when I decided to study arts.’’

Rebekah Forde

BA in fine arts, Dublin Institute of Technology

“When I started my degree there was no mistaking it: the economy was on the way down. Like a lot of people, I was relieved to be starting in college at that point and not job-seeking. I suppose we all hoped that things might improve by the time we finished.

“Over the course of my degree I developed a strong desire to teach. Many of my fellow students started thinking the same way, but I think it was because they liked the idea of a stable income rather than any great ambition to teach.

“Once we came to the end of the programme, it started to become clear that there is no guarantee of income from teaching now either. Several of my friends have done HDips and have had real difficulty getting any work in schools.

“Despite this I have applied to all the HDip programmes, and I am hoping to be accepted on to one of them. Over the course of my degree I put a lot of time and effort into networking and gaining teaching experience wherever I could, so hopefully, if I keep that up, I will make myself an attractive candidate when I eventually go looking for work. I can’t really see another option at the moment.

“However, if I do not manage to get enough teaching work here to make a living wage, then I have not ruled out the possibility of going abroad.

“For now I’m focusing on the medium-term objective of getting qualified. I’ll put off worrying about the job scene until I get my HDip. ’’

Career options: End of the line for traditional routes?

Teaching, journalism and the Civil Service are full of arts graduates. Other popular routes for people with arts degrees include marketing, banking and finance, sales, human resources, customer services, languages, arts and culture (music, theatre, film), heritage, archaeology, childcare and social work.

Restrictions on public-service recruitment limit job prospects, while securing a permanent postprimary teaching post is difficult. The heritage industry is suffering in the face of cutbacks, and journalism is increasingly seen as an industry in flux as newspapers struggle to find viable business models in an increasingly online world.

But there are still plenty of opportunities for creatively minded arts graduates. With big companies such as Facebook, eBay and Google headquartered in Ireland, the demand for graduates with language skills is huge.

Most of these positions are in technical customer-service roles or telesales. Germanic and Nordic languages are especially in demand.

Outside this, BA graduates with digital-media skills have a good chance of securing jobs in marketing. NUI Maynooth and Waterford Institute of Technology are among the colleges offering relevant courses.

Arts graduates with postgraduate business qualifications are also highly valued by employers.


The percentage of CAO applicants who put humanities or social-science courses as their first preferences in 2012


The number of students whoaccepted places on humanities or social-science courses in 2012


The number of students who accepted a place on a science or applied science degree course

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