Arts for art's sake - and so much more
A lot is happening to traditional BAs. Meadhbh McGrath talks to a number of universities about some of what's on offer
Arts students are used to being the butt of a joke. They can't make up their minds, they just want to doss at the college bar for three years, they'll end up behind the counter in a fast food chain. So the clichés go, and with the increased focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in recent years, arts faculties have come under further pressure.
This year has seen notable shifts as universities carry out a major revamp of arts, humanities and social sciences to place more of a focus on "employability" and equipping students with the skills required for the modern workplace.
According to Professor Cathal O'Donoghue, Dean of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies at NUI Galway, "It's apparent that's what students want. It's a serious investment both in terms of money and time to go to university, and people do that to help them develop their knowledge of a subject and also to have an interesting and rewarding career."
He adds: "It's not to miss the point that we can be proud of the value of a liberal arts education. Very often what we're doing in making these changes is not diminishing that but re-emphasising the employable advantages from a liberal arts education, and communicating it better both to employers and to students."
Prof O'Donoghue acknowledges that arts faculties "have been slower" in rethinking their offerings than science and engineering departments, but now NUI Galway is determined to "increase our skills focus within our programmes and to create specific programmes for specific employment areas" with more targeted programmes.
NUI Galway has launched seven new arts degrees with four-year courses such as the BA Film and Digital, the BA International and the BA Arts and Data Science.
Prof O'Donoghue explains it is the first strand in a five-year plan of programme developments which aims to enable graduates to pursue "flexible careers".
UCD, home of Ireland's largest single entry degree which takes more than 1,200 arts students each year, is also revamping its arts, humanities and social sciences programmes.
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As well as offering new subject combinations, some of the degrees will be extended to four years, to allow time for an internship, a period of study abroad or a research project. The three-year BA Arts will still be available, but with a reduced intake.
Professor Colin Scott, President of UCD's College of Social Sciences explains: "We're interested in giving students better preparation for careers, which we understand will not be lifetime careers, but are likely to involve quite a lot of change. We're preparing our students with a deepening of the kind of skills that will assist them both in understanding and participating effectively in the workforce."
The internships will be available across private, government and NGO sectors and, generally, will not be paid. "We'll be assessing them on what they undertake during their internship, so it's a core part of their education, rather than work experience," says Prof Scott.
Professor John Doyle, Executive Dean of DCU Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, notes that much of the reporting around arts graduates focuses on how many are in employment after six months, but that this isn't the best way to measure employability. A large portion of arts, humanities and social science students pursue postgraduate degrees after completing undergraduate study, and statistics on postgraduate employment offers a more promising outlook.
"Comparing someone with three years of education and someone with four or five years of education is, I think, not comparing like with like, and it's suggesting arts degrees have less utility for employment in life than in fact they do have," he says, noting that based on 2016 data, 66pc of DCU humanities/social sciences undergrads were working and 21.5pc in further study, while 86pc of postgrads were in employment, over half of whom were earning over €25,000.
Nobody expects arts to provide a quick path to riches, but the difference in starting salaries between arts and STEM graduates can be remarkable. According to the annual Higher Education Authority survey of graduates nine months after leaving college, in spring 2016, 31pc of information and communication technology graduates earned between €29,000-€33,000, while 21pc of arts graduates were on less than €13,000.
Prof O'Donoghue says that the situation is significantly different mid-career.
"I think it just reflects the different trajectory that different types of graduates have. There are some degrees like medicine where you go straight into working as a doctor, and it's really well-paid at that time, although they spend longer studying and training.
"But most graduates come to a specialist career over time, and that accounts for some of their earnings differential at the start, but that doesn't stay the same over their career. The earnings at the start are not necessarily a reflection of your career."
Maynooth University revamped its curriculum in recent years while Trinity is reviewing its offerings. At the University of Limerick, recent introductions include a BA in conjunction with Mary Immaculate teacher training college. An innovation at UCC was its BA Digital Humanities and Information Technology, weaving digital age skills into the study of arts and the humanities.
For students filling out their CAO forms, the relatively low points for arts (generally 320-350) suggest that these are not the courses for the very best students, but Prof Doyle argues that "what people sometimes forget is that the published points published are the lowest points achieved by any student who got into the course; there's going to be a huge range."
Like O'Donoghue and Scott, he insists that employers do see the value in arts degrees: "There's a lot of focus on the STEM shortages, but. equally. employers are talking about language skills and critical thinking shortages.
"In an arts degree, you have those transferable skills that employers are increasingly talking about, as well as learning about English or politics or law."
He recalls an international relations student whose dissertation he supervised a few years ago: "He was looking for a job with a major international bank to get a bit of work experience and clear some debts.
"The interview ended up being dominated by his thesis discussion on the Bosnian war, and he was thinking this is terrible, how do I get back to my business skills?
"But they offered him a job before he left the room, and when they asked him if he had any questions, he asked the one you're never supposed to ask: why did you offer me a job? They said, 'Well, if you can figure out a Bosnian war, you can figure out banking regulations.'"