Creative, arts and humanities degrees: worth the risk?

A few years after the rise in university tuition fees less immediate effects are beginning to emerge such as the decline in those willing to pursue creative degrees. As a young adult about to study English Literature and Creative Writing, Hope Barker discusses the impact of the increased fees on such courses and the process that brought her to her decision.If_Blog_Mortar-Board-Coins-300x199

When I reveal my plans to study English and Creative Writing at Warwick University next year the general reaction is one of shock that I would spend £9000 a year on writing stories. When the fees were £3000 the middle classes could afford to do a degree in something they enjoyed, whether it was practical or not. However, after the controversial increase in tuition fees, pursuing an arts degree is something one can no longer do without great consideration or copious amounts of money.

Can you afford to pursue a creative degree?

Humanities and arts have been labelled by government officials as “low priority” subjects and so funding has been retracted to pave the way for greater focus on more practical courses such as Sciences, Accounting and Economics. University, therefore, is becoming more utilitarian, leaving “less useful” subjects such as Philosophy and English Literature under-subscribed and under-funded. This has, in turn, meant that universities can no longer afford to sustain these departments. Ucas has reported a drop in applicants as high as 16% for some subjects while The University and College union reported a 14% drop since 2006 in the number of arts and humanities courses available. These statistics reflect how these drastic decisions are not only affecting the number of applicants to university but also causing certain subjects to suffer disproportionately.

The increase in fees coupled with the rising unemployment rate for young people means that Britain’s young are being forced to sacrifice courses they like in order to focus on ones that will benefit them long term. The changes in university education and the current economic climate have come together to create an environment in which young people have no need for creative or humanities degrees and therefore cannot afford to pursue them.

This has only served to highlight the socio-economic divide as, in order to study for one of these degrees, you must have the money to. There has been an outcry from people arguing that the rise in tuition fees will make humanities, art and culture a preserve of the wealthy and therefore lead to the gentrification of these subjects. Only a small sub-set of young adults will be able to spend as much as  £9000 a year on a degree that doesn’t bring them a little closer to a job and a steady income. Subjects such as History, Philosophy, English Literature, History of Art are slowly becoming something for an elite few. Among others, the historian Simon Schama has cried out for a decrease in fees for creative and humanities degrees.

Courses becoming more competitive

Yet despite all the negative effects that the rise in tuition fees has had on creative degrees, there are some positives. As access to such degrees decreases, the competition increases meaning that those who have decided to pursue this path are having to fight fiercely for places. Warwick University boasts an approximate 600 applicants for its 20 places on the Creative Writing course, as offers of such degrees are becoming sparse. Therefore, subjects such as this or Art and Design can no longer be considered an easy alternative. Furthermore, people who may have previously thought of doing these degrees as an alternative to an academic route are having to really consider their choice. In the current climate, doing a creative or humanities degree often means sacrificing financial stability and so one must have a real passion for the subject. These courses, then, are now attracting the very top performers who truly love the subject. In lots of ways that which, on the surface, seems like a disaster for humanities departments may actually be a blessing.

Paying it back

When complaining about tuition fees people often neglect to consider the way in which these loans are paid back. After raising the fees, the minimum income needed to begin paying these back was increased from £15,795 per annum to £21,000. This change is highly beneficial for those who want to pursue a creative career, as those who aren’t earning lots from their acting or writing or painting will have had the benefit of a degree to help them on their way without having to pay for it until they can afford to.

Of course these positives do not override the fact that creative degrees are being undervalued. The new measures introduced by the Coalition on funding and fees has led to the study and creation of culture being overlooked. We need not look far to find a time, such as our parents’, when university was free and bright, young students could study what they loved without worrying about debts and loans. The rift between such a time and our own is only too obvious when we look at the massive drop in those studying creative subjects.

When I was applying to university my parents encouraged me to do a degree in something I enjoyed, as they thought it ridiculous to pay £9000 a year to study something I didn’t want to purely because it was “useful”. I followed their advice, knowing that English and Creative Writing was the only subject I wished to study and that it could open up many other career paths such as journalism or editing rather than just a creative one. However, many people are forced into vocational and specialised courses because these develop a certain skill set and lead to apprenticeships where a degree in English Literature could result in a dead end. It is difficult for an older generation to understand why young people have to sacrifice what they love and are passionate about when, for them, only the elite few academics went to university in the first place. However, now that degrees have become a basic requirement for a job, the focus is placed on which degree you have rather than whether you have one at all. All these changes have led to a bias against the subjects which form the foundation of our culture.