English won’t make school leavers rich, but it might open minds
The only thing an arts degree will get you is a job in McDonald’s. When I left secondary school in 2010, long enough ago that I can look back with confidence at how things turned out but recently enough that I can still offer advice to school leavers, that’s what I was told.
Usually, the advice came from smug science students I met while getting stuck in to my English literature and modern Irish degree at my alma mater, University College Dublin.
Or perhaps it came from those who had completed arts degrees years ago and found when they graduated that they had no clear career path, forced to make it up as they went along instead of slotting straight into a job for which university had qualified them without years of unemployment or the need for further study.
This year’s batch of school leavers will have to contend with well-meaning advice from relatives, teachers and friends as they choose a degree.
With the cost of living continuing to soar, they’re under more pressure than ever before. They may well ask themselves whether it’s wise to study ancient Greek, linguistics or English literature, the most easily scorned of all arts degrees.
There’s no question that there’s more pressure on graduates to perform at a time when it’s not easy to make a living despite there being a shortage of employees.
There’s also a need to future-proof careers to face whatever crisis comes down the tracks next.
To this observer, a shift in what’s prioritised in university education tells its own story.
While classics was once among the most prestigious degrees, Howard University in the US has offloaded its entire department.
Sheffield Hallam University is to pull its English literature degree from next year, incorporating it into a broader English degree, soon after the University of Cumbria took similar action.
This doomsday messaging around the value placed on arts degrees was common when I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old, but perhaps I was too naive to pay attention to it or too eager to go to university, where I’d be at least marginally more sheltered from the impacts of a recession.
We’re now told apprenticeships are the way to go over Stem jobs, which were in vogue when I was a teenager.
While arts graduates are told there’s no place for them in large companies and there are few career prospects, that’s not actually the case.
If anything, when a new graduate feels that they have no option but to pursue more education, the fault lies with universities.
When I was awarded my degree, I went straight on to do an MA that would set me up for employment in an industry I wanted to work in because that’s what I was told I needed to do.
We pay out a lot of money to get an education, but all evidence points to the fact that arts graduates earn less.
A similar situation applies to those who teach students, with academics increasingly facing job insecurity.
While my first degree may not have set me up straight away to out-earn friends who chose to study actuarial science, medicine or even teaching, my advice to graduates would be that there’s little point in choosing a degree just for money’s sake unless you know at the tender age of 18 that it will be your main driving force in life.
Personally, I could never have studied science and I would have been a poor fit for an apprenticeship as an electrician because of my lack of interest in those subjects and, therefore, my inability to retain any information relevant to them.
Likewise, I could never have worked in those areas because I would have lived my life for the precious two days of the weekend alone, counting the hours each day until I could leave work, feeling completely unenthusiastic about my choice of career.
Arts subjects, like the ones I chose to study, may not be in vogue at the moment, but for school leavers what will always be fashionable is choosing an industry that interests them and doesn’t leave them hating every second of the working day.
In defence of arts graduates, we have been taught skills that are needed. In a world where sensitivity is key, we have the ability to negotiate language, analyse information and its nuances and think creatively and critically — abilities which are becoming increasingly rare in a world where we tend to see things in black and white.