Are arts degrees a dying art?

Ria Walls argues for the continuation of arts degrees in the face of cancellations across the water

It was recently announced that the English Literature degree offered by Sheffield Hallam University in the UK is being suspended in response to the Government no longer funding degrees where 60% of students don’t end up in ‘highly skilled’ jobs within six months. By ‘highly skilled’ they are referring to jobs within science, engineering or technology. 

While some brand this decision as a war of humanities vs STEM, others see it as an attack on the underprivileged in society, as arts degrees —  such as English Literature — will potentially only be available at high-achieving universities where there are budgets big enough to afford these without relying on state funding. Consequently, this prevents thousands of students from having access to these subjects. 

When you google ‘Why are arts degrees…’, the top suggestions are ‘useless’, ‘worthless’ and ‘looked down upon’. 

This is upsetting for many reasons and so, to fully unpack this outrageous decision, this article includes a variety of opinions from fellow arts students, staff and alumni on the ever-debated arts degree.

Taking away this degree limits opportunities for so many people who want to go into arts to make a living. It denies the fact that many of us have passions and desires that are not fulfilled if we choose financing, engineering or medicine as a career path. Although they are incredibly important careers, there needs to be a balance; people won’t change who they are just because the degree isn’t offered at university. It will just make them miserable because they are not offered the same chances at succeeding in what they want to do. 

“It shows nothing but a lack of understanding of the world around us to dismiss a degree like mine.”

Arts undergraduates in Ireland are spending up to four years of their life and quite a lot of money on a degree that is frequently brushed off as if it shouldn’t exist. Entering my fourth year of studying Classics and Religion, I feel it shows nothing but a lack of understanding of the world around us to dismiss a degree like mine. 

“What are you going to do with that degree?” This mindset feeds into the ever-present imposter syndrome that so many arts students experience. It creates the dismissive attitude and negative narrative that overlooks such a unique pathway. 

Lucy Jamison studies English Literature here at Trinity. Going into final year, Lucy dreams of working in a creative environment such as theatre. When she first heard about the cancellation of Sheffield’s English Lit degree, she wasn’t shocked, despite how upset it made her feel. Speaking to Trinity News, she said, “From the moment that I even talked about studying literature at higher education level, you get a sad smile and a little nod and a ‘oh so you’re going into teaching is it?’” 

“I’ve been very much used to that and over the years I’ve had to kind of create an argument to combat that comment. Family parties have become a dreaded experience for me, for I don’t want to have the ‘and what are you going to do with your life’ question come up again.”

Fellow English and Drama student Molly Longstaff felt confused at the announcement. She revealed, “I am aware that funding and general social appreciation for the arts is rapidly declining, but to hear that a subject which you are dedicating your life to is deemed as ‘not worthy’ is definitely a blow.

“I believe that writing and literature have the unique power to change the views of others. I wish people understood the importance of them. Arts degrees help us understand the most important part of life: humanity. In a world where human empathy is becoming increasingly void, degrees where we learn about each other and the nature of ourselves are crucially important.”

Speaking to Classics and Drama alumnus Ultan Pringle, he tells of his career now and what his art degree taught him while at Trinity. He said, “I now work as an actor and a writer but I freelance in the music industry as a production manager and dressing room designer and admin person and whatever I can do that pays. I think I’m able to be so multifaceted and dynamic in my work because of my arts degree and the fulsome artistic environment I got a chance to be a part of in TCD.” 

“While I don’t remember a whole lot about the Iliad I do remember the multitasking, the covering all bases, the problem solving and the larger questions of the degree and that’s what serves me best in my work now. I might not be making 48k a year in bio pharm but I feel able to turn my hand to very many logistical roles because of my degree and that society environment I was lucky to be a part of.” 

“It is vital that universities produce graduates who are flexible thinkers, highly skilled in offering sophisticated, in-depth, coherent analysis.”

Trinity English Professor Andrew Murphy also spoke on the matter, saying, “The Arts degree has long been recognised as offering training in the kinds of critical thinking, close reading and writing skills that are highly valued by employers. More important than this, however, is the fact that, in a world where complex and life-threatening problems are routinely reduced to ill-informed tweets and viral videos, it is vital that universities produce graduates who are flexible thinkers, highly skilled in offering sophisticated, in-depth, coherent analysis. We understand our world best by being able to map its complexities and contradictions. Arts graduates are far better placed to do this than graduates of narrowly-specific, vocationally-focused programmes.”

If our degrees are unworthy, then put down the books you read at night to relax. Stop listening to the music that you wind down with. Take off the clothes designed and created by artists. Step out of the museum that lets you escape reality. Turn off the TV shows written and produced and set designed and stage managed and filmed. 

A significant point was raised by James Graham, writer of BBC drama Sherwood, during the Twitter debate surrounding the defunded degree. He said, “They’re cancelling art & humanities degrees at uni where students aren’t in skilled jobs in 6 months. They would have cancelled my drama degree at Hull on that basis. I wouldn’t have become a writer. I wouldn’t have written #Sherwood. Other writers wouldn’t have written theirs.” 

“Why are we discouraged from following our passions and instead pushed into a career that will pay well?”

It is ignorant to remove a degree that holds so much value and potential. I would write all day if I could, so why should I not be able to? Why are we discouraged from following our passions and instead pushed into a career that will pay well? Look into the past and see how the arts changed society then. Where would we be as humanity, without the arts? 

One of my favourite quotes on the matter comes from the cult-classic, Dead Poets Society. Having had several teachers and lecturers throughout my time in education that remind me of Mr Keating, they have filled me with hope rather than discouraged me. Mr Keating said, 

“And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for”. 

In this world, we need the realists as much as we need the dreamers. The world wouldn’t turn if we all did the same thing. The role of the arts in our lives is more valuable, important, crucial and fundamental than we realise and are made to believe. We are surrounded by art. As the great Trinity alumnus Oscar Wilde once said, Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.