education

'Arts graduates are flexible': why humanities degrees are making a comeback


At a time when the UK is facing the loss of around 400,000 jobs in the creative industries as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, are postgraduate degrees in the arts and humanities still popular? More importantly, are they really worth it?

“Yes,” says Manuel Souto-Otero, professor in social sciences at Cardiff University. “They’re really popular. The area of creative arts and design is actually booming.”

Student, Saskia Janicki, 26, who has just finished a master’s in ethnomusicology at the University of Manchester, says despite graduating at a time when the arts sector has been flattened by Covid, it was definitely worth it.

“I’m not deterred by the fact that there might not be job opportunities straight away. I knew when I enrolled that it was a niche subject, but it was about more than a job. It was a research pursuit and I loved it,” she says.

Although science subject areas have become more popular in the past five years, non-science degrees still make up the majority of postgraduate studies and numbers are increasing. Dublin City University, for instance, says registrations for master’s programmes in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences have almost doubled in the past 10 years.

According to Hetan Shah, chief executive of the British Academy, the most popular humanities subjects at postgraduate level are English, media studies, journalism, librarianship and information management, and history. For the creative arts, it is design, music, drama, art, film and creative writing.

It is estimated that up to 900,000 new jobs could be generated in the creative industries between 2013 and 2030, with local economies growing their creative industries employment twice as fast as other sectors. But the future of employment is uncertain and digital transformation and automation will be huge factors affecting the roles available. Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), however, says there’s no doubt that these subjects will be vital in building the society we want to live in and individuals are needed to shape the future.

“The arts and humanities provide critical thinking skills and this matters to employers,” he says. “The creative, empathetic side of human nature is harder to replicate with machines.”

Take the tech sector, for example. Like many industries, the tech sector’s expansion is fuelled by growth in high-skilled, non-technical, interpersonal roles, such as project management, marketing and branding, human resources, market research and data analysis. These rely heavily on skills developed in the humanities and social sciences.

“Arts and humanities graduates are flexible and have a wide skill set, including communication skills, collaboration and teamwork, research and analysis, independence and creativity, not to mention, in many cases, specialist knowledge – all of which are in high demand from employers,” says Shah. “This flexibility and resilience will be a real advantage post-Covid-19.”

Others say these courses offer more than just employability – while many people do take up a postgraduate course in order to further their existing careers or to retrain for a new one, many are also doing it for the love of the subject and to broaden their knowledge.

Caroline Bithell, head of music at the University of Manchester, says new online communities and networks have been formed as a result of the pandemic, and the arts sector is becoming more accessible and relevant than ever.

“If you talk about access to the arts, normally we’re talking about having the money for a theatre ticket or going out at night and that may not fit with everyone’s lifestyle,” she says. “Now things are available digitally and more people are able to attend.”

The experience also emphasised the importance of art and creativity for health and wellbeing, says Bithell. “It has provided an anchor to take people away from all of their problems.”



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