The Arts: worth it or worthless?

The idea that a Bachelor of Arts degree is useless is by no means a new one. For years the debate between choosing to study something you love, or studying something that will earn you money has been at the forefront of every prospective university student’s mind. But where does the responsibility lie for these negative connotations, and how do we ensure that the arts are taken as seriously as degrees like Medicine and Law?

When I started studying International History and Politics at Leeds in 2014, I knew that as a humanities degree, it would be highly unlikely that I’d be in lectures and seminars from nine to five everyday, but it was a shock when I found out that I’d have only seven contact hours per week in my first semester, and just five in the second. I, like the majority of UK university students pay £9000 in tuition fees. Although that rate is extortionate for any degree, knowing that I’m paying such a large amount for so little makes my head spin. For those studying science, engineering, technology, or mathematics (STEM), who often have long and intense days at university, that £9k figure seems almost (but still not quite) justifiable.

My first year at university doesn’t count towards my final grade, so I presumed that my second year would bring about a heavier workload and more hours in university. I was wrong. Having just received my timetable for the upcoming year, I was dismayed to see that my contact hours have been reduced even further, to just four hours per week. In fact, one of my compulsory modules has no contact time at all, and I’m essentially paying a sixth of my tuition fees for the privilege; that’s an expensive library card.

With such a disparity between arts and STEM degrees, is there any wonder as to why the arts attract such a negative stereotype? With hardly any time spent in university, I find myself rushing to fill my spare time, which does have its benefits. It gives me the chance to have a part-time job, get more involved with societies, and write and edit articles. But I can’t shake the feeling of wanting to be taught a subject I love. Knowing that what I study isn’t as highly regarded as STEM degrees is disheartening, and I would gladly take on a heavier workload if it meant that my degree would be taken more seriously by my future employers.

The negative attitudes against arts degrees start forming long before the first day at university. At GCSE level, students may be discouraged from taking “easy” subjects such as Media, Dance, and Drama, but they are encouraged, and in some cases forced to take the Triple Science Award which delivers a GCSE in each of the science subjects. Students begin their GCSE’s at just 14 years of age, an age at which many have no idea of what they want to be doing in five years time, and perhaps rightly so; they’re only children. But we’re already instilling the idea that in order to be successful, they have to limit themselves to a select few subjects. Fast forward two years to A-Levels, and the same pattern is apparent. It’s common to see students taking Maths and Science, or English and History. But it’s rare that the two mix.

Revising for your final A-Level exams as well as making the necessary preparations for university makes for a frightening and anxious final year at school, and it’s important that all students are given the adequate help and advice to ensure that they’re ready for their future. However, this is often not the case. Those who are hoping to go on to study Medicine and Law, or aspiring to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge University have to take a number of exams that play a key role in determining whether or not they will gain a university place. Looking back to my final year at Sixth Form, I remember that these students went to weekly meetings where they were given help and advice on their future plans. But when it came to everyone else, we only had each other to turn to. Of course, this is not to say that Medical students didn’t deserve the help they received, but rather that help shouldn’t just be available to a select few.

A Bachelor of Arts degree includes anything from Art History to Psychology, Creative Writing to Media, including the humanities Geography, History, and Philosophy. We need people to continue taking these degrees, but there needs to be drastic change in the way that they’re taught. The arts are vital. They help us to think critically about the world around us, and they provide us with a rounded view of societies past and present. But is studying them for just a few hours a week really worth the money?

Undoubtedly so. The skills that students can gain from studying an arts or humanities degree puts them in a great position for future employment. Surely arts students have heard all the stereotypes? “You study history. I guess you want to be a history teacher then?” It’s a favourite of arts students (or maybe just me?) to joke about a life of teaching or downright unemployment, but the reality is in fact far different. We could find ourselves working in media and communications, marketing or business. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with becoming a history teacher if that’s what you want to do!

The point is, we need to get out of the mindset that studying an arts degree puts us on a road destined for a dead end. Instead, it undoubtedly provides students with a solid foundation that they can build upon. Not everyone can excel in STEM subjects, and that’s more than ok. The problem is that by consistently focusing on and recruiting for STEM degrees, universities risk producing an abundance of arts graduates who are filled with nothing but worry for their futures. Providing that the resources are available, dedicating just a few more hours per week to arts degrees could make a huge difference to those who study them, whether it be in terms of providing them with the help they need and deserve, or just simply showing that their degree field is legitimate and worth studying for.

Lauren Davies


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