Why arts? Arts degrees still have the single biggest intake of students

Lower salaries and less employment - but here’s why you should consider arts

Languages are a key part of modern arts degrees, and graduates with a European language – particularly where it is coupled with business or ICT skills – will find themselves in high demand. Photograph: iStock

Languages are a key part of modern arts degrees, and graduates with a European language – particularly where it is coupled with business or ICT skills – will find themselves in high demand. Photograph: iStock


Arts degrees were once the most popular college choice. They swanned around the school like the queen bee that everybody wanted to hang out with.

This was the 2000s and – short history lesson, we promise – students didn’t need a lot of points to get into science. But, around 2008, the recession hit, science got a makeover, and points for arts fell. They’ve been in decline ever since, with growing numbers of students deserting the arts for a science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) course.

And yet, arts degrees still have the single biggest intake of students across any subject, and they’re particularly attractive to students who – like this journalist, back in his prehistoric day – didn’t quite know what they want to do.

The case for arts

“Arts and humanities cover a broad range of disciplines including, for example, classics, languages, the performing arts, literature, history, art, geography, music and philosophy,” says Dr Mel Farrell, director of the Irish Humanities Alliance. “It helps us to better understand the human condition and our shared human history and culture. Graduates in these disciplines play their part by contributing to a society which is culturally rich and globally-facing.”

Prof Victor Lazzarini, dean of arts at Maynooth University, points out that arts degrees give students a huge amount of choice. “At Maynooth, you can go for scientific-focused subjects such as maths, psychology or computer science, or you can choose more scholarly subjects such as classics and early Irish. Some subjects, such as music or media studies, have a very vocational direction. Arts degrees, unlike areas such as medicine, don’t tie you to a particular route.”

Prof Lazzarini says there is something for everyone in an arts degree, including students who prefer STEM subjects. “Maths and computer science are available through arts in Maynooth. Even philosophy is a very logical and rigorous subject.”

The skills of arts students

“Arts and humanities students are educated to use credible source material and they learn how to gather, interpret and synthesise information from variant viewpoints,” says Dr Farrell. “The skills that arts and humanities graduates develop over the course of their study – adaptability, creative and critical thinking, contextual knowledge, cultural understanding, high-level written and verbal communication skills and empathy – are what employers are looking for. By fostering critical thinking and the capacity to source evidence in a discerning way, the arts and humanities also contribute to the wellbeing of a society and the principles of a healthy, open democracy.”

Earnings and employment

The bad news: a recent survey by the Higher Education Authority found that arts graduates have the lowest salaries within nine months of graduation, earning just €24,728. For context, the highest paid graduates come from education (teacher training) courses and they earn €39,752, followed by engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates on €36.817

Arts graduates are also least likely to be in employment within six months of graduation, with only 59 per cent in work or about to start a job. The highest employment rate is for education graduates (92 per cent), followed by health and welfare graduates (88 per cent).

The good news: these figures could be misleading without context: 26 per cent of arts graduates go on to further study and, because their training is less vocationally-oriented than, say, an engineering or teaching degree, they’re more likely to take on a postgraduate degree. Indeed, it’s worth factoring in the likely cost of a postgraduate if you’re a student in a household where money is tight because, bar a small amount of financial assistance or scholarships for a limited number of students, postgraduate students pay fees.

In recent years, however, a growing number of big firms have been recruiting students from a range of disciplines, including business, law, science and arts, onto their graduate recruitment programmes and providing them with the training and skills they need to learn on the job.

And, while their starting salary may not be as high, arts graduates are likely to catch up within five years.

Careers for arts graduates

But what career paths are open to an arts graduate? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

“Arts graduates are recognised for their achievement in the creative arts [music, drama, literature etc], business, education, politics and information and communications technology,” says Dr Farrell.

“They have typically excelled in primary, secondary and third-level teaching, the civil and public service, museum or gallery curation, journalism and media and genealogical services. They also forge careers as business analysts, editors, lawyers, interpreters/ translators and, increasingly, in ICT, where a graduate’s critical, analytical, research and problem-solving skills are valued. Arts and humanities graduates also make a key contribution to the cultural and creative industries in, for example, crafts, design, fashion, music and the performing arts.”

Languages are a key part of modern arts degrees, and graduates with a European language – particularly where it is coupled with business or ICT skills – will find themselves in high demand.

Dr Farrell says arts graduates are well-equipped for the changing work and that, with growing concern that automation will replace human jobs, their skills can’t be easily replicated by robots. “Resilience combined with global competencies like cultural awareness, language capabilities and adaptability are ever-more important in the workplace. Graduates who are flexible, culturally aware, entrepreneurial and able to communicate effectively are sought by employers in various sectors.”

Where to do it and what the points are like

Arts and humanities courses are on offer in every university and college, and most of the institutes of technology. Each university has its own spin on the subject, and most allow students to pick and choose their subjects after they start college.

UCD offers three arts streams: a four-year BA humanities which includes overseas study, the traditional three-year bachelor of arts programme and a four-year BA in modern languages.

Maynooth University’s arts programmes allow students to take a broad range of subjects from first year and they can study law, business or even computer science as part of their degree.

Last year, points for the BA in arts at UCD stood at 381, while the new four-year course needed just 301 and modern languages required 399 points. Maynooth’s arts course required 320 and at NUI Galway and UCC, students needed 300 points.

What arts graduates say

Louise Velling: ‘The ability to understand narratives, to write and to examine culture is a huge part of what arts graduates are trained for.’

Louise Velling: ‘People don’t usually associate arts with robotics

Louise Velling has a bachelor of arts from UCD (English and German), a masters in English literature from UCD, and an MSc in multimedia technology from UCC

“When I left college, I worked in digital media for a few years, particularly focused on UX [user experience] and this sparked my interest in understanding the relationship between people and technology.

“I’m currently doing a PhD in anthropology at Maynooth University, looking at the interaction of humans and robots. Robots occupy a unique position in contemporary culture, and I’m looking at the sites in which they’re designed, created and encountered. I’m asking philosophical questions on the relationship and boundaries between humans and technology.

“This mightn’t be what people think of when they think of arts, but the ability to understand narratives, to write and to examine culture is a huge part of what arts graduates are trained for. There’s a clear connection between arts and technology, and so many ethical issues to address with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, so we need diverse voices to dig deeper. Arts graduates are crucial to this type of work.

“What’s after this? I’d like to teach. If I could design my own job, I’d like to combine sociology and an arts perspective to bring new perspectives to computer science and robotics students.”

Evan O’Quigley: ‘I learned a lot from my degree, as well as from the extracurricular side of college life.’

Evan O’Quigley: ‘Arts gave me more time to get involved

Evan O’Quigley has a bachelor of arts and a masters in history from UCD

“My first job out of college was working in a bank. Then I did an admin job in a finance firm for a year, before spending two years working in a communications and marketing role. In 2018, I became corporate communications manager for Mercury Engineering, a big firm with over €750 million in revenues.

“My job here is to look after social media, the website, contributions to specialist trade communications, assist journalists with quotes and case studies, and help staff members to answer media questions.

“I learned a lot from my degree, as well as from the extracurricular side of college life. I wrote for the University Observer paper, edited the comment section and got involved in Belfield FM. Arts degrees do free you up a little more to get involved: I had 15-20 hours of lectures and tutorials a week, compared to 30-40 for some other students. This gave more time to get involved.

“I did the arts degree, like a lot of students, not knowing what I wanted to do. I studied history and English because I liked them in school. The college paper made me interested in journalism, which led to marketing and comms. I love my job here, and there are always new stories to tell, such as our new data centre in Germany. I have good prospects and I see a long-term future with Mercury.”