Comment & Analysis
Mar 15, 2022

The Tired Debate Around the Usefulness of Arts Degrees

Perhaps we should stop measuring the success of graduates from different faculties in the same way, writes Sophie Coffey.

Sophie CoffeyDeputy Opinion Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

The question of what we want to be when we grow up is one that society has posed to young children for years. Before I made my first foray into the education system, this was a query with which I was already familiar. Even at a young age, the unfailing responses of my peers and I were already divisible into two distinct categories – there were the sensible realists who sought paths like teacher or firefighter, and there were the dreamers who saw no reason why being a fairy or a video game character should be considered less viable career options.

My younger self might now consider me to have attained that ambiguous stage of being “grown up” – a claim I will forever refute – but at times I still feel as if my career ambitions are as fictitious as the fairy-tale fantasies I entertained as a four year old. There are certain occasions in particular that draw this concern to the fore of my mind, or, more specifically, certain questions.

Instead of being asked what I want to be, I am now constantly faced with the inquiry “and what would you do with that?” This question will resonate with many college students, but particularly those of us who frequent the arts block. After all, it is a question often posed in response to the admission of an arts degree.


As an English and sociology student, my answer as to what I would do with “that” is rehearsed, repeated, and rarely reputed. Unlike a specific vocational degree, my career path is not set in easily inscribed and understood stone. Ironically, the discovery that I am undertaking a notoriously ambiguous degree tends to invoke the satirical assumption that I must have a five-point career plan.

As an English and sociology student, my answer as to what I would do with ‘that’ is rehearsed, repeated, and rarely reputed

When my friends in STEM have “ambitions”, I am reminded of my “aspirations”. When my friends in business courses are offered paid internships, I am offered “exposure and experience”. When my friends in language classes are encouraged to spread their wings, I am reminded to keep my feet on the ground.

Yet, for all that I can complain tongue-in-cheek about the query “and what would you do with that?”, it is not an invalid question. Most days I ask myself the very same thing. I cannot pretend that I’ve never listened to my friends mention accounting assignments and felt somewhat dubious at my assigned perusal of an 18th century gothic novel. But just as it would be disingenuous to deny doubts over my degree, I cannot pretend that my envy of another’s supposed career security has ever extended to envy of another career.

Like most students who find themselves defending critiques of their subject choices, I have not chosen an arts degree for the financial prospects. The decision was never made because I envisaged the path to a high earning job, it was made because I struggled to envisage any other route.

I recognise that this reads as naive – that infamous, rose-tinted belief that passion will provide a livelihood. A love of my work won’t pay the bills and attempts to offer this article as payment would only serve to prove correct those who disparage the arts.

When my friends in business courses are offered paid internships, I am offered ‘exposure and experience’

Status and salary are so often the focus of career prospects, and more recently have become a divisor of financial support in the wake of pandemic job losses. It is perhaps unsurprising then that a celebration of the arts is deemed an extra-curricular before it is considered a source of income. The arts provide a livelihood for many, but an inability to recognise this crucial fact is often accompanied by the burden of precarity, uncertainty and financial difficulty. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) reported in their 2018 graduate outcome study that the lowest proportion of graduates who were “working or about to start a job were Arts and Humanities graduates (63%)”.
Yet, surely, we can appreciate the elements of our existence that bring us joy without measure? I am indebted to those who work in banks, but their professional role will never bring me the same joy as watching a piece of theatre. We must avoid the inclination to definitively value one thing over another simply because certain roles within our world provide less tangible benefit to the global accounts.

We will always need those extraordinary high-flyers to fill certain roles, but equally, how dull our world would be without those whose flights are of the “head in the clouds” variety.

I am in no way implying that we should place arts degrees in the same vein as medical professionals. Instead, my somewhat romanticised idea is that we stop valuing separate substances using the same scales. Without the arts our culture misses those who are creatives and writers and not-quite-sure-but-no-not-a-teacher-thank-you. Without the arts our culture is diluted.

I’m not saving lives. Frankly, I don’t appear to be changing them at all. But maybe enriching them is enough

Let’s be honest, I’m not saving lives. Frankly, I don’t appear to be changing them at all. But maybe enriching them is enough. Perhaps even within a society that is intrinsically and irrevocably tied to markets there is still value to be found in the curve of a smile just as in the curve of a supply and demand graph.

For many students, the structure of the Irish schooling system is set in stone – early childhood education, primary school, secondary school and third level. For other students, of course, the system is not so straight-forward, and the dismissal of an arts degree is a mere fraction of the disregard faced by students unsuited or unable to access the traditional education system. Again, this speaks to a perspective of the world that is viewed through an economic lens. Everything is calculable and merit is awarded on the basis of financial evaluation. Learning potential is only obtained for the sake of earning potential and third level a mere pit stop on the journey to a payslip. Arts students, remember, do not pass go and do not collect €200.

For some degrees the graduate route appears to be neat, organised, and well-trodden. The path that I and a miscellaneous bunch of arts students are taking is uneven and sprawling with the kinds of overgrown branches perfect for tripping over when your head is daydreaming in the clouds.

Yet, I wouldn’t change it. I didn’t stumble onto this path accidentally and I won’t veer off it unintentionally either. I will keep reiterating my response and valuing the arts for a contribution that is neither tangible nor replaceable.
It is one of my great aspirations that, in years to come, my future self does not read this article in pity at my young, naive self. After all, following my “aspirations” is exactly what I “would do with that”.

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