It’s a tough time to be making a decision about your future during a pandemic, but arts degrees might just offer the flexibility students need right now.
History and English tend to jump to mind when people think of arts degrees but they’re a degree that offers a huge amount of choice.
Arts degrees are as broad as they are varied and, in many cases, students don’t choose their subjects until they start off in college.The options include slightly more career-oriented or vocational areas such as languages, archaeology, music, psychology, film studies, drama, information technology and computer science as well as areas that provide broad critical thinking, research and analytical skills including literature, geography, folklore, world religions, philosophy, classics, linguistics, history of art, media studies, economics and maths. But there’s also interesting variations including NUI Galway’s BA Connect programme where students combine arts with one of children’s studies, creative writing, human rights, performing arts, film studies or journalism.
Arts and humanities degrees have been declining in popularity ever since the last recession back in 2008; during the same time period, growing numbers of students have been opting science, engineering, technology and maths (Stem) courses instead.
Last year, a survey by the Higher Education Authority found that arts graduates have the lowest salaries within nine months of graduation, earning just below €25,000; this compares with starting salaries of almost €38,000 for teachers and close to €37,000 for engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates.
There are big caveats here: most arts graduates go on to postgraduate degrees rather than straight into the workforce, and while they may start off on lower salaries, they generally catch up within five years. Bear in mind, however, that postgraduates generally have to pay fees.
Arts degrees may not have the cache they once had, but arts graduates are still in demand and, indeed, you’ll find them in every sector including teaching, journalism and media, public relations, law, ICT, cultural and heritage work, the arts, music, the charity and NGO sector, the civil and public service, business, languages and ICT. Employers tend to value the cultural awareness, communication skills and flexibility of arts graduates.
Karen Ruddock is director of Post-Primary Languages Ireland, which is responsible for the implementation of the Government strategy for foreign languages in Ireland.
“Research shows that 46 per cent of Ireland’s graduates are in jobs that are unrelated to their original qualification,” she says. “That’s not unusual. You don’t go to college just to get a degree; education is about lifelong learning and the focus has now moved towards individual skills and life experiences.”
Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted not just the need for more doctors and better healthcare systems, but also the need for workers to be adaptable and able to transform how they work, as well as being creative and critical enough to develop and implement new ideas.
Employers will only become more interested in these “transferable skills” - creative critical thinking, adaptability, cultural understanding, strong verbal and written communication skills, empathy, research and analysis - over coming years. These are also some of the skills that any successful entrepreneur setting up their own business may need.
Ruddock's undergraduate degree was in science, but after graduation, she went on to work in an area more traditionally associated with arts. After college, she went on to live and work in Japan, where she taught English and also learned Japanese.
"I went to Uganda to teach and I discovered that I had a flair for languages," she says. "I also learned that I enjoyed teaching, which is all about collaboration, building relationships, organisation and performance management of your students. So then I went on to postgraduate studies in applied linguistics, English as a foreign language and Japanese language pedagogy."
With language skills in short supply, any graduate with Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin - or indeed many other languages including Irish, Arabic and Portuguese - will stand out in the jobs market.
Tech companies and businesses with an Irish base, as well as the smaller enterprises that provide the majority of employment here, need people with language skills so they can communicate with their global clients.
But Ruddock says that learning a language provides more skills than many of us might expect. “When you learn a second language, you are a better listener, you can juggle two competing priorities, you’re more open-minded, you can take on challenges, you figure out different ways of communicating and you have a broader cultural understanding of different parts of the world. You also learn how to analyse, as learning the grammar of a second language involves a lot of analysis.”
There are many places across Ireland to study arts - including languages - across Ireland, including three arts streams at UCD and various programme at Maynooth University, UL, DCU, UCC NUI Galway, Trinity, TU Dublin and many institutes of technology and colleges.
CAO points 2019
Joint honours arts (DCU): 347
Humanities (UCD) - 4 years: 348
Arts with data science (NUI Galway): 434
Arts (WIT): all qualified applicants accepted
Modern languages (TU Dublin): 368