Teacher, philosopher, aspiring writer, barista? What does the future hold if you study an arts degree? As a history student, I have been asked many times about the £36,000 of debt I have signed up for in exchange for four years of dusty books and no job. I have met prejudice in the past and will in the future, but an arts degree does not necessarily mean a life of low wages and unemployment.
This discriminatory view of arts degrees asks a greater question about the value and purpose of higher education, but also perpetuates an idea that arts degrees are superfluous. Former education secretary Michael Gove’s cull of ‘soft’ A-level subjects contributed to this; as last year, the exam board AQA announced that it was abandoning classical civilisation, archaeology and history of art A-levels. The Russell Group also provides an ‘Informed Choices’ guide, which suggests taking at least two so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ to ensure a good chance of entry into a higher ranking university. These include mathematics, sciences, English literature, and languages. It ignores what can be found upon a quick foray into The Student Room website: film studies, business, and art and design are listed amongst many other ‘soft’, or easy subjects. And yet, students should surely be encouraged to pursue the subjects where their interests lie, especially in an online advice forum where students share academic and social knowledge and experiences. Many still see ‘soft subjects’ as easier than more traditional subjects, an outdated view considering that these tend to be more time-intensive due to coursework or practical work.
Whilst there are evident perceptions of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as the most difficult degrees, a comparison of value and workload needs to be considered. In order to avoid prejudice, there should be no perception of any degree as more difficult than another. Although an English literature student might struggle with simple mathematics, a computer scientist might find philosophical concepts impossible to grasp.
The process of application to university is stressful, often done alongside demanding A-levels and Highers, and it is an arguably elitist process that is reliant on access to both good guidance and the time to spend polishing personal statements. The University of Edinburgh’s maximum use of the UCAS deadline means that many students do not hear back for agonising months, but one of hardest things about it is the discrimination felt against ‘soft’ A-level subjects.
And yet, it is as important to encourage the general study of arts subjects as it is to encourage women into STEM subjects. However ‘soft’, these subjects remain highly important. My classics A-level tied into my English literature and my history A-levels, and the opportunity to study the Odyssey alongside the Cicero was something my parents were definitely not offered by their local sixth form colleges. Classics arguably underpins the entire modern world, and is important for the understanding of more traditional subjects, given the Hippocratic oath in medicine, and the political legacy of the ancient world in modern democracies.
A history degree provides skills of analysis which are invaluable in many jobs, and the ability to analyse and then prioritise information is vital to decision making. We are living through history; events like the Scottish referendum, Brexit and Trump will be on the History A-level syllabus of the next generation. In order to make sense of current affairs it is important to study the past, as everything which is happening around us has been influenced by, and is a direct result of, that which preceded it. The arts also form a civilising influence in any society. A world with no museums, no theatres, no films, no dance, no festivals, no music, choirs or books would be one with no identity. Considering non-STEM or non-traditional subjects ‘soft’ only undermines how hard students of these disciplines do work.
No graduate should stand in cap and gown and feel anything but pride, whether they have spent their university careers reading books, writing code or making sculptures.
Image: Yuttana Jaowattana