Why arts degrees have a value that go far beyond graduate salaries: Anthony Clavane

Anthony Clavane disagrees with plans to rank universities by graduate earnings. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Anthony Clavane disagrees with plans to rank universities by graduate earnings. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

It is becoming fashionable to scoff at so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees. To sneer at universities teaching the creative arts. To argue that courses in music and theatre are of less importance than those in banking or accountancy.

This kind of philistinism used to be the preserve of the commerce-driven, Victorian elites parodied by Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan. In that play, Wilde has Lord Darlington quip that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

It is clear, however, that such cynicism now drives government thinking on higher education. How else to explain the latest plan to rank universities by graduate earnings?

I have spent part of this week interviewing sixth-form students who are applying for a place at my university. I am a Journalism lecturer in a department offering degrees in Literature, Film and Theatre studies.

When I have asked why they want to take the course, not one of them has replied: “To make as much money as I possibly can.” Not one of them has declared a wish to earn a six-figure salary in the City. Not one of them has implied that graduate income will determine their choice of university.

Instead they have used words like “creativity”, “truth” and “passion”. They have even mentioned things like enjoyment, fun and happiness. They have told me about the writers they love, the newspapers, magazines, podcasts and websites they rate, the film-makers they admire. They have wanted to know about the broader benefits of the degree, the vibe on the campus, the university’s social life.

They were not put off when I told them that starting salaries tended to be lower in the arts than in medicine, law, business studies, engineering and biological sciences. A career in writing, unless your name is JK Rowling, ain’t gonna make you rich.

According to a poll commissioned last year by Universities UK, only a third of students and recent graduates decided to attend university to get a higher salary than they otherwise would have. Millennials, it appears, are more interested in wellbeing than big bucks.

Next month, I will be taking part in Leeds Lit Fest. You can be sure that the writers, performers and artists involved in the myriad talks, workshops and performances will be less motivated by cash than passion. Most of them will have taken an arts degree and not sought to maximise their earnings as soon as they left university.

Higher education experts are worried that arts and humanities subjects will take a big hit if the Ofsted-style plan goes ahead. This might not worry the right-wing ideologues who champion it and who would welcome a shift away from these subjects – towards science, technology, engineering, mathematics and vocational disciplines.

Did they not read last April’s Centre for Economics and Business Research report which documented arts graduates’ contribution to the enrichment of the nation’s culture?

The arts and culture sector contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy. It bestows £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation. It generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs.

The report also found that productivity in the arts and culture industry between 2009 and 2016 was greater than that of the economy as a whole.

But there are more important things to consider, I would argue, than the economic impact of creativity. “Art,” as Pablo Picasso put it, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Ask all those attending Leeds Lit Fest about the effect it will have on their mental wellbeing. Talk to the hundreds of thousands of people who, each year, attend literary festivals across the country.

There will be around a hundred LLF events squeezed into a few days, and the aim will be to inform, to entertain – but mostly to inspire.

Such inspiration is not quantifiable. It will not show up in league tables. It will not be reflected in the kind of ranking system currently being dreamed up by a government fast gaining a reputation for short-sighted cynicism.

The arts are integral to our sense of fulfilment, to our sense of ourselves. They are, as the saying goes, food for the soul.