Dont waste your time and money studying that! Do something useful!

As the number of student choosing to attend university continues to climb is there such a thing as a useless degree?

Don’t waste your time and money studying that! Do something useful!

As the number of students choosing to attend university continues to climb is there such a thing as a useless degree? Are the degrees that we so regularly rank at the bottom of the pile, like art, worth pursuing in 2024? 

The value of the arts is a complex and multifaceted debate which has been being spoken about for as long as university has existed, with stigma being one of the driving issues, especially in the UK. The value of the the arts as higher education subjects is often a contentious subject, especially among families, however I believe that creativity is one of the most valuable practices we have, and I believe that being told that what you want to study is a “worthless” degree is detrimental to the mental health of our aspiring students. Applications into arts degrees have dropped by 20% over the last 50 years and Since 2010, enrolment in arts GCSEs has fallen by 40% and the number of arts teachers has fallen by 23%, And these subjects are only looking more threatened by impending budget cuts, retraining schemes and outdated stigma, So how promising is it to pursue art at university? I think this central problem of judgement and stigma stems from societal expectations that were outdated twenty years ago let alone now, and there’s still a kind of cloud hanging over “the arts” which is this deep rooted belief that it’s impossible to make a viable career out of being creative. These kinds of attitudes that are still prevalent, are detrimental not only to the arts community but, in my opinion, the mental health and functionality of every creative person going into higher education, and the workforce. 

The first big question that needs to be answered before we can have this conversation is “What even is art?” Art is an umbrella term defined as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. And encompasses music, literature, visual arts and a whole plethora of other practices. If I had to give my own definition I would say art is anything which is created with the sole purpose of evoking emotion, and I think that’s where the problems really start; we feel that the arts are inessential because its practicality isn’t easily tangible, and something that serves a solely emotional purpose isn’t viewed as beneficial, despite the fact that it’s perhaps what we need the most. I’m picking this as my debate topic because it affects me every single day as an aspiring artist. 

The origins of humans evolving is a diverse and fascinating thing but a common thread that runs throughout history is our desire for creativity and story, we have this sort of pull to create and share what is unique to us as a species and completely unexplainable. The more I look into art history, early forms of communication and subjects like ethnomusicology (the study of how music has shaped and continues to shape culture) the more I believe that we wouldn’t be humans without art, and that needs to be remembered and considered when we’re talking about the value of art in all of its many forms.

 To some extent everyone who’s made it in the arts has had to overcome the stigma that surrounds the arts and make their own way, because it just isn’t something that’s presented to us as a particularly viable option or something that’s encouraged. It can feel absolutely crippling when everyday you’re being bombarded with subliminal messages that it’s impossible to make what you’re truly passionate about into a job, or at least one you can put a roof over yourself with. We often see art, especially as a university subject, as a dead end degree that you’ll only pursue if you’ve got no sense when in reality it can lead to careers like: Graphic design, architecture, illustration, gallery curation, animation, teaching, performance, therapeutic subjects and freelancing.

Being such a broad issue it’s an interesting one to research and I had to have a long think about where I wanted my research to come from, I’ve watched various talks and spent hours sifting through articles online which have all inevitably shaped this essay and affected my opinion but the opinions that stuck with my most where those of those who had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, Researching into chat forums was... Insightful? I wasn’t expecting it to be all happy go lucky artists but the level of cruelty from some is shocking. The thing about researching “stigma” is it’s such an abstract thing, I have no concrete proof of what I’m researching but it’s certainly something I’ve felt and I’m sure many of us in the arts have too, so it was important to me than my research reflected what actual people thought so I did some researching, scrolling through old threads and asking questions and these are some of the more negative quotes that have stuck with me the most (I will keep them anonymous for the sake of this essay):

                                                     Research 

   Anonymous quotes form student chat rooms:          

                                                                              *

“I don't think they're completely worthless but too many people do creative degrees to make them useful. STEM degrees are probably better to do at university”

                                                                              *

“Not useless but not very useful in terms of future earnings, if you want a good stable career you'd be far better off doing engineering or medicine.”

                                                                              *

“Yes they are

I have a Saturday job with full time people who have art degrees. Fat lot of good that is”                  

                                                                              *

“Stuff like art is pretty useless... no offence!” 

                                                                              *

“I'm sorry but she'll find herself going nowhere if she does an Art degree, there are little almost no jobs that want an Art graduate. The short answer is simply - never! There is literally nothing you can do with a BA in Art honestly.” 

Employment statistics:

Here you can see art and design ranked bottom from financial graduate prospects

This comparison on the prospects of STEM and NON stem degrees shows the shocking gap in employment 

                                                                       *

Artist survey:

I collated and shared a short survey for artists who have graduated and received some interesting responses. Which can be seen here:

Venessa, BA fine art:

(Vanessa works for nucleus and also has an illustrative jewellery business)

-What made you choose the arts?

I naturally gravitated towards the arts - always drawing, doing anything creative and crafty from a young age. Art was what I enjoyed the most and felt most confident in.

-What sort of reactions did you get when you told people you wanted to study within the arts?

Family and friends were pleased I wanted to study the arts, as it was what I was most passionate about and happiest doing. There was definitely uncertainty in what a successful career would look like in the arts for me, but largely because they did not know any artists.

-Do you feel confident about your career path post grad?

It has its ups and downs, but I am very happy to be working within the arts, and surrounded by a creative network of artists. It is not as much of a clear-cut career, which feels daunting and confusing at times, but it is hugely fulfilling and rewarding. There are always creative opportunities on the horizon, and studying within the arts equips us with adaptability, specialist skills, creativity, problem solving and flexibility which makes us great for taking on a challenge. However sometimes having the confidence to go for things is a struggle.

-Was your choice encouraged by your school/college or the people around you?

Mostly yes. A few teachers at school expressed concern for me not wanting to pursue something 'more academic' instead. My grades were great in all other subjects so they saw art as a 'soft option' and even a 'waste' for me!!. However the art department fully understood, valued and supported my choice.

-Do you have any further comments on how we value art (be it visual or any anything else) in education and higher education? 

The arts are so often put in boxes or in formal structures where they don't fit comfortably, because they are often so broad, subjective or challenged by those who undertake the subjects. I think this influences public opinion and how they value it - because they do not see it taken seriously.

Lucy: Bmus Music. :

(Lucy is my music teacher of 10 years and has taught music in both primary and secondary schools as well as privately)

What sort of reactions did you get when you told people you wanted to study within the arts? 

Largely positive. I have very supportive family who have enjoyed music themselves. Although there was a joke going round when I was a student:

Q What do you say to an Arts Graduate with a job?

A. "Can I have fries with that please?"

-Did you feel confident about your career path post grad?

No!  Didn't have a clue what to do at first. I really felt at sea. It worked out for me slowly in the end,  via a PGCE.

-Was your choice encouraged by your school/college, and the people around you?

Short answer is yes. 

-Do you have any further comments on how we value art (be it visual or any anything else) in education and higher education? 

I think art of all sorts is highly valued by almost everyone in the real world.  I have never really encountered negativity towards Arts in education,  except from the government,  who seem to struggle to understand its value and fund it adequately.  A world without art is unthinkable but they seem to lack the imagination to understand that. 

Tilly, BA illustration and animation:

(I’ve worked a lot with Tilly during her time on the community engagement team at Nucleus. She’s an illustrator and textile designer with a focus on wallpaper)

-What made you choose the arts?

So, I've always been arty. I would say that my love of the arts has been natural, but it's definitely been nurtured by my surroundings. I'm very close with my grandparents, although my granny is an excellent crafter, my grandad is a keen woodturner and watercolour painter. His skill is undeniable and I've always felt inspired by him. Growing up with my step-mum in the picture too, had a big impact. Wendy is an artist and she exposed me to a whole world of things as a young girl. Art exhibitions, materials, the power of the arts and its need to promote mental health. I was once told by my secondary school art teacher that I'm not just an artist. I exude it in each breath. 

-What sort of reactions did you get when you told people you wanted to study within the arts?

I would say mixed. My close friends and family were very supportive, and if anything have only ever been encouraging to my study choices. However, this does not mean to say I didn't have the odd acquaintance tell me that they thought I was wasting my time. It still catches me as a surprise when people react negatively to my choice to go into the arts. With many simply thinking it's a waste of time as there is little money in the industry. I believe anything is possible if you work hard enough. If you want something enough, you will be willing to throw everything at it.

-Do you feel confident about your career path post grad?

Overall, I would say I feel confident with my career path post grad. The journey to a freelance illustration career is long and challenging. I was pleased to find a way to apply my creative thinking into Nucleus Arts (Charity), in a way that isn't just satisfying to me, but also is of service to the wider community. I don't see myself being in my current role forever. But I do believe it to be instrumental to the start of my career journey. 

-Was your choice encouraged by your school/college or the people around you?

Choice to study the Arts or to take work in the creative industries? Yes to both by most. (see above)

-Do you have any further comments on how we value art (be it visual or any anything else) in education and higher education? 

I don't believe art is very well valued in school curriculums until you hit higher education. School can be very limiting to creative practice and I believe as much as it's good to have some kind of structure (everyone has to start somewhere), when the structure begins to look like a cage for creativity, it is naturally going to limit how far you can take it. I felt pushed by my experiences in higher education (uni). It was here that I learnt how to break myself out of that cage. 

                                                              ***

To further develop my research I contacted some arts educators to get an insight into their beliefs and experiences:

Luna, ex UCA art tutor and current Midkent art tutor:

-Do you think the closure of UCA mirrors a more national issue? 

Unfortunately the funding in the Arts in FE has been cut over a number of years. I wonder sometimes if an Arts Degree will eventually become a qualification that only the well off can afford. The UCA Kept its campuses in Surrey and Canterbury so I feel that it’s already going that way. Personally I feel it’s a great loss to Medway and will effect arts education for years to come. The UCA really was a special place with excellent tutors and facilities. 

-What made you pursue a career in the arts?

I was always creative from a small child, I loved to draw and paint. I didn’t paint for over 20 years but when I went back to it I was better than before. I feel the artist was in me. I see my self as a creative person who likes to express my thoughts and feelings this way. I still have to subsidise my practise by working a part time job and money is tight. Please see my video which talks about this more. 

https://youtu.be/-RMj14a-bxY?feature=shared

-What changes would you like to see about how the arts are valued as a higher education subject?

Lastly, I would like the Arts to be valued and more opportunities for artists within the community. This first needs to be encouraged in schools and linked to other subject. Basically you can learn all about the world through art music literature and culture including food. Women need to be celebrated more and the history of art rewritten to include their voice. It would change how we feel about art in society. 

John 

-Do you think the closure of UCA mirrors a more national issue? 

The current government does not value the arts, despite the size of the Industry

-Can you tell us any more about the decision to close UCA Rochester?

It was a directive from the Vice-Chancellor and his team. He has now left. 

The courses that were at Rochester have failed to recruit and some of them have closed. 

-What changes would you like to see about how the arts are valued as a higher education subject?

Government support. Better or more supportive Regulation. Better connections with the EU. Reversing budget cuts for the Arts Council. Scrapping student Loans

                                                                conclusion:

My takeaway from all of these responses is about who judges the arts; it is not the artists, it is not the teachers and it is rarely those around us. It’s people who simply have a different set of priorities…  

I was expecting more negativity from teachers and parents to be spoken about in the survey response but it appears to be more focused on genuine careers concern, which does appear to be valid in some of the charts I showed above. These figures appear really quite shocking and it’s perhaps biassed on my part that I contacted artists who are already employed and not those seeking jobs, so it’s hard for me to gauge what it’s like when these degrees don’t instantly lead to successful careers. As passionately as I feel about valuing the arts as a higher education subject, there is a different side to this argument that I am aware of and that we can’t form a balanced view without; firstly, I am biassed, the arts is where I’ve chosen to put most of my energy and time so I’m always going to feel a strong protectiveness over it. There is of course just as much value in other subjects such as STEM. Something that always plays on my mind is how the world is not set up for the self employed, from taxes to mortgages to maternity leave it’s not an easy option and often requires working more than above average hours. I would also be naive to say that art is challenging in the same way as the more traditionally accepted careers but that doesn’t mean it’s less challenging. We have problems in all aspects of education and funding, and it’s easy to say put more money into the arts until you have money and you’re faced with the choice of putting it into STEM education OR art education. 

I think about this topic constantly, because it affects me in so many little ways as an aspiring artist, I question constantly whether I’m making an irresponsible decision studying a creative degree, making a selfish one, even throwing away my future prospects, even though I’ve poured thousands and thousands of hours into being good at what I do. I think what sadly scares me the most is the judgement, I don’t want to be viewed as irresponsible just because I chose to follow what I really loved, but the unfortunate reality of it is there are thousands of skilled and talented young people all over the country feeling this same pressure. I know in my heart of hearts that I want to pursue a career in the arts and to share art with others. 

 We inevitably have a priority system within education and the workforce as some jobs are more essential that others but we don’t need everyone pushed into these jobs, we push people into academic subjects not just in the education system but also outside of it; insisting it’s the best route even if they have no interest in it whatsoever. It’s interesting to consider the use of arts degrees as many of the skills could be self taught, certainly in degrees like fine art but the benefit of degrees in the subjects comes more from networking as much as anything else, the idea that university is a kind of second hand nepotism is often considered just as valuable as the acquired skills. I listened to a talk a few years ago about how we try to create compliant workers rather than thriving individuals and what she said really stuck with me, it was along the lines of “if you have a child who excels at maths, but struggles with science at school, what do you do? You get them a science tutor or some kind of extra help, despite the fact they’re showing you the subject they’re talented at and interested in and as a result of this we strive for mediocrity in all aspects of life. This attitude doesn’t damage anyone more than artists as it’s often given little to no respect within our education system. The concept that as a society we’re more interested in creating uniform workers that humans who are working with what they love and feeling satisfied isn’t something I thought about much as a child as I grew up in a very different environment to most; I’ve been home educated my entire life and as a child I had freedom over how I spent my time and for me that was more often than not art or music and whilst my life looks very different now that’s a time in my life I feel shaped me and countless ways and that I’m incredibly grateful for. 

I’ve also realised that I need to be less influenced by this stigma and have the trust in myself to follow what I love. We do have to consider educational funding carefully and there are things that will always be prioritised. 

There are so many sides to this argument and like any other debate there is no “right” one however I personally have a strong view that I feel is backed with enough evidence for me to share; while the arts are considered an inessential subject in the eyes of the government I’d argue they’re one of the most essential - yes, we need many stem careers in order to function in this society and in some cases to survive but you have to have acknowledge our pull towards creation and how essential the arts are for our mental health, art is fuel for humans, it’s seen in the earliest forms of communication and storytelling not to mention how it’s the only truly universal language we have. Yes, funding is difficult and we need to think carefully about where we put it but it costs nothing to encourage and nurture the passions and aspirations of young people and if we don’t I think we’re going to find ourselves in an even more dysfunctional society. If you love it and you want to do it, do it; you’ll never regret trying to pursue what you love, or at least that’s what I’m hoping!

Bibliography:

     Articles:

Woolcock, N. and Lombardi, A. (2021) “University students ditch arts degrees and opt for medicine,” The Times, 4 February. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/university-students-ditch-arts-degrees-and-opt-for-medicine-w63vnzrxd. 

Glasgow Guardian (2021) “The Decline of Arts Degrees,” The Glasgow Guardian [Preprint]. Available at: https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2021/03/11/the-decline-of-arts-degrees/#:~:text=The%20Times%20piece%20identifies%20economic%20reasoning%20as%20one,greater%20access%20to%20industry%20connections%20and%20experience%20programs. 

Harris, G. (2021) “UK government approves 50% funding cut for arts and design courses,” The Art Newspaper - International Art News and Events, 22 July. Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/07/22/uk-government-approves-50percent-funding-cut-for-arts-and-design-courses. 

Are Arts/Humanities degrees useless? - The Student Room (no date). Available at: https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=3404169. 

Degree in Art? Is it really worth it? - The Student Room (no date). Available at: https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=3198943. 

Is a music degree useless? - The Student Room (no date). Available at: https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=3944657. 

Editorial. (2023b, February 7). The Guardian view on arts education: a creativity crisis. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/07/the-guardian-view-on-arts-education-a-creativity-crisis

Amberstudent. (2024, May 6). 12 Best Art Universities in the UK in 2024. Amber. https://amberstudent.com/blog/post/10-best-art-universities-in-the-uk

Council for Higher Education in Art & Design | The association of educational institutions with degree or postgraduate provision in art and design. (n.d.). https://www.chead.ac.uk/

Videos:

leena norms (2022) “arts degrees are a waste of time.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYByOI1Eg4E. 

leena norms (2020) Why you shouldn’t leave the arts. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7knBAgrVDno. 

National Geographic (2015) The Importance of Art Education | StarTalk. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ4UwzRLVpQ. 

Tate (2018) Why Study Art? | TateShots. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKjkx6PzajE. 

Books:

Gaiman, N. and Riddell, C. (2019) Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World (Apple FF). HarperCollins. 

Cron, L. (2012) Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Ten Speed Press.

Hart, M., Stevens, J. and Lieberman, F. (1990) Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey Into the Spirit of Percussion. [San Francisco, Calif.] : HarperSanfrancisco. 

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