What’s the real value of an arts degree?

As a Theatre Studies graduate, I get very mixed reactions when I reveal my choice of degree. Being an arts graduate is an interesting label and I find it very quickly draws out fundamental preconceptions about education and, frankly, life in general. 

Often, people are dismissive about it. What did you study? Oh, just an arts subject, that’s barely a degree at all. Not like Law or Physics or History.

Some people are curious. But why did you study an arts subject? Couldn’t you get onto a real course? You just wanted to drink for three years, didn’t you….

Very occasionally, people are envious or admiring of my courage. But even that just feels like a back-handed compliment.

And some people look confused and disappointed in me. My IQ drops twenty points in their eyes. I see in their faces it’s not what they expected of an apparently articulate, educated, capable person.  I haven’t taken myself seriously.

Yes, to many people I might seem too ‘clever’ to have studied an arts degree. It confuses their understanding of the university system and what it’s for. Who triumphs, and who doesn’t. 

But don’t judge a book by its cover – or a course by its name. In my opinion, I am clever because I studied an arts subject. Not in spite of it.

However, a lot of time has passed since my undergraduate years and the system is in very different shape today. Arts subjects have always been under scrutiny to prove their value, but never more so than when the average cost of a three-year degree course runs to £30k. That’s three times more than I paid for my Theatre Studies degree. 

Faced with a £30k bill, I think my eighteen-year-old self would have thought hard about it. It’s more difficult than ever to make good choices about further education, especially when it comes to supposedly ‘soft’ fields like the arts.

The UK government’s investment in perceived ‘priority’ STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects has, over the last twelve years, seen a 14% reduction in the number of arts and humanities courses available at universities in the UK. 

This reduction doesn’t tell students on the remaining arts courses they’re special; it tells them the government doesn’t value what they’re studying. Even if they do.

For me, an arts degree was a choice, not a cop-out. An emphatic, determined choice about the kind of life I wanted to lead and the sort of person I wanted to be.

I had the intelligence to take a more ‘traditional’ subject but I knew that wasn’t for me. I wanted my horizons stretched and my experience of the world intensified.  Only an arts degree would help me become who I am.

Even at the age of sixteen, as I filled out my UCAS form, I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. My grammar school careers advisor scoffed at my choice, warning that I would be wasting my time and could do better. Take a proper subject like English or History.

But why be just another English graduate?

I’ve always felt that eighteen is too young an age to make a choice like that. Inside the school bubble, you know relatively little about who you are, and who you might want to be. Many of my friends regretted their choice of degree subject and went on to retrain later in their twenties and thirties.

It’s easy to be influenced by what your school thinks you should do, which subject had been taught more successfully and, even, which teacher you liked best at A-Level. I’d recommend a year or two outside, living in the ‘real world’, before making a three or four-year study commitment and a huge financial one.

And with such a financial commitment, it’s hard to argue for courses that offer joy and passion over solid career prospects. At university, I met countless law and maths students with very little enthusiasm for their subject. My eyes always lit up when I talked about mine. I loved it, and I felt enriched by it at every step.

But yes, the law and maths students earned a lot more than me from day one, and still do. I knew that back then.

The economic value of an arts graduate is hard to quantify because the benefits of creativity are mostly emotional, spiritual and psychological. That makes arts subjects an easy target. They’re always under scrutiny to prove their worth. Whatever the discipline – music, theatre, fine art, dance – it’s all a ‘nice to have’ when things are going well and utterly dispensable when the going gets tough. 

Except that it isn’t. The arts tell us who we are. They fill voids we don’t even realise are there – until they are gone.

Without the arts, what would society be? 

There would be a lot of silence. 

History tells us the arts began with early humans sitting around a fire, retelling the stories of their day hunting in the woods. So, a society without the arts is the equivalent of our ancestors quietly eating in silence, staring into the flames.

Arts graduates are our storytellers. People who enjoy hearing stories rely on other people being willing to learn how to tell them well. I believe we all have a desire to express ourselves, an artistic person is simply someone who has a more highly-attuned ability, or an increased desire, to express themselves.

But yes, creative expression as a profession does come at a cost. It’s a choice about the kind of person you want to be. And how much you value certain things in life; money, security, routine, etc. I chose an arts degree in the knowledge I was making those things harder to achieve. 

Crucially, I discovered that an arts degree is anything but soft. It places a lot of demands on you. You need a level of sophistication and intelligence in so many areas.

We had to be academic and creative. We had to be reactive and reflective. We had to be intelligent, studious, playful, curious. We needed stamina and tolerance. We had to be able to learn anything, try anything, do anything.

And I gained a much wider range of knowledge about the world, about history, psychology, science and philosophy than I might have done on another course. It is the breadth of your skills and knowledge that truly makes you intelligent. An arts degree gave me that in bucket-loads.

I acquired a lot of emotional intelligence, which has been surprisingly valuable in business. I spent hours working intensely with a small group of fellow students, which teaches you to be attuned to the ideas of others, and to benefit from them.

And I learned to challenge. Courses that involve a level of self-expression as well as academic exploration encourage you to really think, not just absorb. You inhabit your subject fully when you actually practice it. That produces a different kind of intelligence. 

Ironically, of course, today the elite of society are thought to be the main consumers of the arts. The law and maths undergraduates – now solicitors and bankers – who spend their hard-earned cash on the ballet, the latest hit West End play and classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Created by people who studied ‘worthless’ arts courses and live off much lower wages in order to live their dreams and share the benefits of their expression. 

Ultimately, I can’t prove an arts degree was a bad thing on my CV. Early in my career I found that employers cared only that you were a graduate, not what you studied. But I’ll never know how often it put my CV to the bottom of the pile. And I’ve worked in the theatre and also pursued a career in the media, so I’ve made more direct use of an arts degree than some.

But I will always vigorously defend my choice.  And I don’t care for the perception that it was a waste of my intelligence. 

I am a deeper, cleverer and better person because I studied an arts degree