Jayne Dowle: Lessons for life on real value of my arts degree

FORMER Education Secretary Kenneth Baker says that a degree in English or history or geography is no longer a passport to a middle-class lifestyle. The veteran Tory, who served under Margaret Thatcher, argues that these traditional subjects won't equip graduates for decent management jobs in the digital age.

Exam results are revealed in August

A “nice house in a nice area”? Forget it, unless you want to sign up to an apprenticeship scheme for a major conglomerate where you will learn to write computer code in return for your soul.

This is not exactly heart-warming news for the thousands of youngsters who will be finding out their A-Level results today. Many will have set their hearts on taking up a place at university studying a traditional subject, with the hope of working eventually in the arts, the media or teaching.

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Lord Baker is right of course – but it doesn’t make it right. The pace of change in the global economy means that there simply aren’t enough of these jobs to go round.

He was rather an effective Education Secretary, establishing the GCSE system for example, with the general air of a genial headmaster. Unfortunately though, we can’t dismiss this former Cabinet minister’s comments as the gentle ramblings of an elderly gent who is out of touch with the modern world.

In one fell swoop, he has highlighted the massive disconnect between education and industry which is raising the expectations of those who are spending the best part of £10,000 a year to study a subject which might qualify them for nothing more lucrative or prestigious than waiting at tables or whipping up cappuccinos.

Yet we simply cannot write off the study of the great subjects and sacrifice them all on the altar of progress. As a graduate with a degree in English Literature and Language, I’d like to argue how studying the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Brontes and TS Eliot does actually equip you for life. My degree, a 2:1 from Keble College, Oxford, is as traditional as it comes. It includes the study of Anglo-Saxon, the translation of which literally made me cry.

However, because it made me cry, it taught me that life is not always easy. It also taught me the important skill of how to develop a strategy. When it came to my finals, which involved translating Middle English under exam conditions, I was determined to learn every passage off by heart. This took months, but to my delighted surprise, I ended up gaining one of my highest marks overall on this paper.

This brings me onto the life lesson which has perhaps equipped me the most for work. It’s the importance of both self-motivation and personal organisation. When I went to university, there were no “learning skills tutors”, mentors or support networks. You simply pitched in and got on with it.

When I later taught at university myself, I came across countless bright students studying all kinds of subjects – including the maths and engineering areas so favoured by the Government. It was rare to find any youngster who could draw up a revision plan or prioritise deadlines without a tremendous load of fuss and soul-searching. I never thought self-sufficiency would become outdated, but apparently it has.

Perhaps the most important “hard” skill though was the ability to assimilate and analyse information very quickly. When you’re studying an author a week, Dickens, say, you have to get very good at this. I’d say it was a useful skill for any career really, and certainly not one that should be discounted by those who face page after page of technical jargon on a regular basis.

Just as valuable, though, was learning that I wasn’t good at everything. I think it’s best to draw a veil over my thesis on Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne and his relation to modern soap opera, because it was a rambling mess. It deserved the B-minus mark it got, and taught me that I should always stick to a brief.

What general advice would I give then, to students who wish to undertake a traditional degree? In a world where qualifications are devalued and too many institutions are under-funded, aim for the very best university you can.

Employers cannot argue with a prestigious degree, whatever subject it comes in. For this to happen though, and for ordinary youngsters to feel confident that Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities – such as Leeds – are not beyond their reach, there needs to be a change in aspiration from the bottom up.

This kind of ambition cannot be simply bolted on at A-Level stage. It needs to start in primary school and be nurtured throughout secondary level. For this we must look not to Lord Baker, but Rotherham-born Justine Greening, the newly-appointed Education Secretary. In this task, she will need even more application and aptitude than the students waiting with trepidation to collect their results this morning.