This article first appeared in Student Magazine Nexus,
Arts students are no strangers to being mocked. The BA, commonly referred to as the Bugger All degree or the Bachelor of Alcohol, is considered by many (mostly management students) as an easy ride with no discernible job prospects. And our old friend Steven Joyce would have you believe that an arts degree is about as much use as a dildo in the face (but then, he is a dickhead).
But contrary to what the National Goons would have you believe, rather than being a ticket to a career asking “would you like fries with that?”, an arts degree opens up a whole world of opportunity. While teaching grads are prepared to be teachers, and engineering grads are prepared to be engineers, arts graduates are prepared not just for one career but for any career. And the huge benefit of that is, when teaching jobs are impossible to find unless you want to relocate to Tapanui (hint: you don’t) arts graduates will be laughing their versatile little buns off all the way to their interesting and hugely varied jobs.
In my first ten years post-uni, I worked as a freelance stage manager, theatre manager, retail sales assistant, children's party entertainer, learning support assistant in a hospital school, outdoor education instructor and as an administrative temp in the private, public and not-for profit sectors. This gave me a great opportunity to try all kinds of employment before settling onto a career track. In all of my employment, what has helped me to succeed has been the intrinsic skills of an arts education.
An arts graduate, no matter which subject area they majored in, will have skills in critical thought and analysis, written and oral (shush) communication, curiosity, creativity, and the ability to think on their feet, and those skills match pretty closely with the top attributes required by employers. All jobs will have specific skills and knowledge you need to gain and employers won’t expect you to know how to do everything. But the skills they need you to already have include the capacity to pick up new skills fast, learn and understand processes, and come up with improvements. And “excellent communication” is cited as a must-have in most job ads.
In the news
The much-maligned arts degree has been in the news recently, with areport from Universities New Zealand on the value of a university degree stating that ninety percent of arts graduates are employed in degree-relevant roles and that the average arts graduate is earning above the national median for salary and wage earners.
The New Zealand Herald even took a break from licking Jonkey’s arse and rehashing BuzzFeed articles, and wrote one of their own about the value of a degree. Writer Danielle Wright notes that training for specific jobs can even be counter-productive, as many of the jobs that will exist in 10 years’ time, don’t exist now. She also notes that “A British Council survey showed that more than 50 per cent of 1700 leaders in both private and public organisations across 30 countries had degrees in the social sciences and humanities, testament to the transferrable skills acquired in the more general degree programmes.”
Independent researcher Hannah August, currently undertaking a summer residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre also thinks that arts grads have an unfair public perception. She is carrying out research on the way New Zealanders value the arts and humanities, and why we have a perception of the BA as “bugger all” use. The data, she says, doesn’t match this perception. Hannah’s research points to arts degrees providing both economic return to the individual graduate, but also wider returns in terms of personal development, heightened self-awareness, and a shift in the way they engage with society. One survey respondent said simply that “it made me a better person”. The majority of the respondents also said that although they thought their tertiary education was too expensive, and their student loan took a long time to repay, they had no regrets about going to university or taking an arts degree.
Unlike Marmageddon, this is not a uniquely Kiwi problem. Spiralling student fees the world over, and increasing pressure from governments to ensure universities can demonstrate the value of their degrees by producing high tax-paying citizens, have led to more students (and parents) questioning “what job will I get?” rather than “what will I learn and will I enjoy the experience?”
Julie Farrell of Trinity News (Ireland’s oldest student newspaper) writes that worldwide there is a growing perception that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) and Business qualifications are the sensible option; opting for a degree in ancient history or sociology is perceived as self-indulgent and meaningless. This appears to be linked with a global decline in the public’s willingness to pay for “culture” when there is so much freely available (or pirateable) online.
In any case, the research suggests that a degree is worth the money and time you spend to get it, regardless of the discipline area. What seems to be most important is that students choose to study something they enjoy and for the experience of learning, not solely the size of the pay check at the end. As the great philosopher Macklemore said “Don't try to change the world, find something that you love/And do it every day/Do that for the rest of your life/And eventually, the world will change.”
So arts students: hold your heads high and cast off the mockings of your less enlightened peers. And at graduation, when you are proudly clutching your mortar board and degree certificate, and Uncle Bruce says, sneeringly, “So, what are you going to do with that?” you have permission to smack him in the face. Preferably with a dildo.