An arts degree... a luxury or a liability?

David Bullard says that while he's been able to busk his way through life with such a degree, things are rather different today

Back in the golden era of baby-boomerdom  (1960/70's) there was only one important decision a teenager needed to make and that was what to do after school. I'm obviously referring here to privately educated "privileged" individuals and not to the riff raff who emerged without so much as an O level from the state school system. They either went into some dead end job or turned to crime.

The privately educated privileged, depending on their A level results, had to decide whether or not to go to university and since all their friends would be going to university chances are they would too. In fact, not going to university sent out a strong signal that you'd probably either failed your A levels completely or scraped through with poor grades.

Parents with children who had just taken A levels and weren't going to university had some explaining to do at the golf club. Where I grew up in south London nobody wanted to be known as the parent of a thick child. If you did flunk A levels there were two face saving possibilities. One was a crammer school and a second attempt the following January and the other was a year spent overseas doing voluntary work.

Those who did get good enough grades for tertiary study would have already applied to several universities before taking their A level exams and would have been given provisional acceptance. The choice of university was vitally important and depended on all sorts of factors such as the distance from home (the further the better), the ratio of women to men and the number of good pubs and clubs in the area.

Southerners would be traditionally wary about going to somewhere like Durham for example because they probably wouldn't understand a word the locals were saying. Northerners, on the other hand, enjoyed applying for places like Exeter because they hoped the civilising influence of the West Country would smooth some of their northern rough edges.

The posh and  well-connected went to Oxford and Cambridge, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done and read Politics, Philosophy and Economics before going into politics. The really clever kids also got into Oxford and Cambridge, hopefully on a scholarship. The rest of us were scattered across the country, mostly at universities that were far removed from the Brideshead Revisited romanticism of Oxford.

Once you'd decided where you wanted to spend the three years after A levels (avoiding the workplace and living on a generous student grant) you had to decide on a course. What were known as the arts and humanities were extremely popular for a very good reason-they didn't involve much hard work. Sign on for physics at Imperial College and you won't see your friends for years. You can't bluff your way through a Physics exam. But sign on for English and Drama (as I did) and it's a doddle if you happen to enjoy reading.

Plus you get to meet the best looking girls at the university. The only problem was what to do with an English and Drama degree. My father raised the matter with me on one occasion and I airily replied that I might become a film director or go on to apply for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. The old man was unimpressed and suggested that a more useful qualification might come in handy should I decide, one day, to get a job. As always, he was a man way ahead of his time.

I have managed to busk my way through life with an arts degree but things are rather different today. Research released in the UK shows a significant rise in applications to study medicine, engineering and science and business subjects. Arts courses have suffered and there has been an 11% drop in applications since 2007. In the same period applications to study physics have risen by 29% and there has been a near doubling of demand for subjects "allied to medicine".

Figures for bogus degrees like journalism and media studies were not available but my guess is that they have also shown a sharp decline in applications. Previous research has shown that graduates with arts based degrees are more likely to be out of work six months after leaving university than those studying medicine.

The problem is that arts and humanities students probably wouldn't have been much good on a science course. I know I would have been absolutely hopeless. So maybe there is a strong argument for regulating university courses and weeding out those that perform no useful social function. I mean, it's all very well lying on the banks of the River Cam on a sunny day with a bottle of Ch Yquem and a volume of Keats but what does it do for the country's GDP?

In South Africa we are experiencing a similar problem. Having cruised through three very decadent years at university in pursuit of a totally useless degree I feel slightly guilty pontificating but somebody needs to point out that SA in 2013 is nothing like the UK in 1970. Back then I had no doubt that I would find a well paid job. In fact, I have never applied for a job in my life and never sent a CV through to some HR division. I even had to wait until age 55 to be sacked. I have operated in financial markets and on the fringes of journalism without a single relevant qualification. If I applied for a job today I would be laughed at.

Attending university today in SA is regarded as a right. It confers status on the student, irrespective of whether the course has any commercial value. Listening to a radio phone in programme the other day it became quite apparent that very many university students have no clue how to apply for a job and, worse, are ill equipped for the work place.

The good old days when university was a great opportunity to defer the inevitable first day of work and get laid are long gone. If students don't select courses that are likely to lead to employment (as they seem to be doing in the UK) then they are doomed to a life on the scrapheap. Pushing SA's future unemployment figures even higher by offering a dubious university education is a dangerous game for the ANC to play.

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