Students who are thinking of undertaking a degree in arts and humanities are often met with snorts of derision, or questions about how they’re ever going to get a job with a degree in English or history.
They were once the most popular course of study, and while still high up there in terms of academic stardom, their popularity dwindled in the late 2000s following the financial crash.
With rampant unemployment in the State at the time, who could blame prospective students for wanting more job security? In fact, the figures for arts graduates don’t paint a particularly positive picture.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) 2018 graduate outcome survey found that arts and humanities courses had the lowest proportion of graduates working or about to start a job, standing at 63 per cent.
Arts and humanities graduates are the lowest paid on average, with younger graduates from the field earning about €25,300 a year on average nine months after graduation.
But there is more to these degrees than the above figures imply and perhaps it isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
The same HEA survey found that arts and humanities graduates had the highest proportion in further study at 24 per cent. They also have one of the lowest dropout rates when compared to other courses, standing at around 23 per cent.
Perhaps that’s due to the wide variety of subjects available to these students, who can choose disciplines which interest them, as opposed to being forced to undertake modules which they do not enjoy.
The options available to prospective students range from those which they would be familiar with from school to others which they may never have encountered before such as philosophy, anthropology or psychology.
The open-ended nature of art degrees means it is an attractive option for many young people who aren’t quite sure about what it is they want to do with their lives, but who know they want to further their education.
Many teenagers opt for an arts degree as a foundation stone, before moving on to do a postgraduate course in a more specific area.
Prof Colin Graham, dean of the faculty of arts, Celtic studies and philosophy at Maynooth University, said they are an important option to school leavers, who "shouldn't be expected to know what they want to do with their lives".
“They allow students to elevate their intellectual buildings, without having to focus that on one career path. I think the arts degree is particularly useful for students in that it has a mixture of subjects they would recognise in school so English, history, geography and languages,” he said.
“Then it has subjects they wouldn’t have studied before. Media studies, for example, they might have done a little bit of in English but they wouldn’t have done it specifically. Ancient classics would be another subject we offer, that it’s very unlikely students would have studied.”
He added: “They can test out these subjects in first year – because they take four subjects with us in first year – and then they can specialise down to two or even one after that.”
And while the disciplines of the degrees themselves are valuable areas of study, Dr Mel Farrell, president of the Irish Humanities Association, said the courses also foster "broader competencies" which can be taken into any career.
“Arts and humanities students are educated to use credible source material and they learn how to gather, interpret and synthesise information from variant viewpoints,” he said.
“The arts and humanities produce graduates who are communicators, creators and evaluators.”
How do these skills make a graduate employable?
According to Dr Farrell, workplaces have evolved, and the education provided to arts graduates is in line with these changes.
“Modern language programmes in particular provide graduates with the vital linguistic and intercultural competencies which are quintessential in our globally interconnected world,” Dr Farrell said.
“The skills that arts and humanities graduates develop – adaptability, creative and critical thinking, contextual knowledge, cultural understanding, written and verbal communication skills are what employers are looking for.”
What career options are available to these graduates?
Quite a lot, according to those in the sector, with the options being as varied as the courses themselves.
As well as having a key impact on creative sectors, arts graduates are increasingly going into top businesses, taking on leadership roles, human resources and communication positions.
“Arts and humanities graduates have excelled in education (primary, secondary and third-level teaching), journalism and other media, the civil and public service, museum and gallery curation,” Dr Farrell said.
“They also forge careers as business analysts, editors, lawyers, interpreters/translators and, increasingly, in information and communications technology where critical, analytical, research and problem-solving skills are valued.”
Prof Graham agrees that career paths are open-ended, but he also thinks they have changed over the past two decades.
The increasing use of graduate programmes by businesses has likely assisted this, with young people being able to learn area-specific skills on the job, while bringing their broader understanding of the world into the workplace.
“My specialism is in English and 20 years ago we would have been talking about school teaching and journalism as the main careers our students went into. That just wouldn’t be the case any more,” he said.
“Teaching is still important but it’s by no means the main exit for our students any more. They’re in every area of employment in the public sector and private sector. Leading business, going into management, but also arts graduates are very good at public-sector employment where you need someone who is on a leadership path.”
In fact, the public perception of arts degrees is changing too, according to Prof Graham, who believes employers and educators now value their importance more than ever.
Science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) courses were trumped as the most lauded area of study, but that acronym has evolved further to Steam, which includes the arts.
“I think people have realised that our society is very rounded. It’s not entirely focused on business and science, we’re all individuals who live within a cultural realm and we need people who are aware of the cultural human side of everything we do,” Prof Graham said.
"I think that's changed quite quickly and I think Ireland is a country which understands inherently the value of the arts and humanities."
Dr Farrell believes the integration of arts in Stem learning illustrates how “vital” it is to society.
“Steam is based on an understanding that innovation is often found where different subjects intersect and that student achievement in science and mathematics increases when arts and humanities perspectives are integrated,” he added.
The entry requirements for these courses are generally accessible too, with the CAO points decreasing over the past decade.
In Maynooth University, the points level for a bachelor of arts in 2020 was 318, while in UCC, students required 300 points for a three-year arts degree.
UCD has three streams of arts degrees: the three-year joint honours, which required 310 points in 2020; modern languages, which required 300; and a humanities degree, which includes a year abroad, a research project or internship and which required 326 points.
Clearly a degree in the arts provides a specific education in a student’s subject of choice, but the skills they learn through these studies are much broader than just the subject in question.
Communication, for example, is a key component to arts degrees. Many lectures require in-class discussions, and essay writing for assignments, resulting in graduates acquiring excellent written and verbal communication.
Creativity is also an inherent part of these courses, which is sought after in the workplace.
Whether its studying international literature, or modern languages, there is no doubt that a cross-cultural understanding is a key component of the learning from the degrees. This is an increasingly necessary skill as workplaces become more diverse and multicultural.
Problem-solving, too, has become interwoven with arts and humanities courses. Through the study of art, literature or music, students garner the ability to examine why humans act the way they do, and how best they could act to solve issues that may arise.
And the problems that arise in ancient literature aren’t too far removed from those which still occur today, enabling young people to develop empathy and active listening. This is a skill that will benefit them not just throughout the course of their career but in their personal lives too.