STEM vs Arts & Humanities

A friend sent me an article yesterday with the education secretary Nicky Morgan’s views on students who pick arts subjects at university. Naturally I was interested to hear what she has to say especially considering that she herself was an arts student – she has a law degree.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has warned young people that choosing to study arts subjects at school could “hold them back for the rest of their lives”.

 

Speaking at the launch of a campaign to promote science, technology, engineering and maths – the STEM subjects – Morgan said the idea that choosing arts or humanities subjects can keep pupils’ career choices open “couldn’t be further from the truth”.

 

She continued: “But if you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told ­– for all kinds of jobs.

 

“Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”

 

Morgan was supporting the Your Life campaign, which aims to increase the number of students studying maths and physics at A level by 50% within three years.

Clearly as an almost-thirty year old who is spending around £50k to study one of the ‘worst offender’ subjects of Art History for seven years, I have a few opinions on this.

It’s not that studying an arts subject will ‘hold you back’. To me, that seems like a silly point to make. If I studied a science subject I would almost certainly be more ‘held back’ than if I studied an arts subject. Why? Because I am not science-clever. My ability for humanities subjects is much better than my ability for science subjects. (Trust me, I failed my Maths A Level and nearly took my Physics A Level with it.) Being ‘held back’ is relative and can only be measured against yourself.

When I decided to go to university at 28 it was a serious decision for me. I had a real passion to study photography and new media through art history, but I took the time to weigh up lots of other subjects, including the core STEM subjects. I looked at league tables for universities, contact hours, and yes – future employment statistics. What did I learn? That art history statistically has absolutely fucking terrible employment statistics post degree.

In many ways Nicky Morgan is right. If you study a STEM subject you are more likely to trundle out of your degree and into a nice job and you’ll be able to bounce from job to job with a nice pay rise every year or two – especially if you get involved in good research jobs or the London tech community. Those are much safer jobs and more likely to bring immediate reward. Which is fine, I can appreciate that. But the statistics don’t give you all the information – you have to be able to interpret that data against sociological norms for it to be meaningful (OH HAI ART HISTORY DEGREE, I’M USING YOU RIGHT FUCKING NOW).

Women skew graduate employment statistics. Men too, but mostly women.

You can’t just take post degree employment figures as an exact guide of what’s happening in those industries after graduation. Ultimately we still live in a country that engages with reasonably sexist ideals. For example it’s normal for many women to go to university with no plan to have a career – they wish to marry and have children instead. Which is fine, but that’s reinforced by things like unequal ma/paternity leave in employment and unequal pay due to career progression loss because of this.

I think having gone to a girls school for my secondary education that I have a further interesting insight into this too, because women are still pushed into studying what are considered ‘feminine’ subjects. For example, I really wanted to study DT (that’s design and technology – or woodwork if you’re old school) at GCSE and then A Level, but the course didn’t run because I was the only person who wanted to do it and they needed six to run the subject. There were over 170 people in my year at school. Most of them seemed to be pushed into what passed as IT fifteen years ago, business studies, history, and textiles. Not that those subjects are somehow invalid, but there was a certain emphasis on them when we were making our choices. I’d like to point out though that our school was exceptional in its decision to encourage students into the sciences – although I seem to remember that there were still only four of us in our A Level Physics class.

What this leads into is the convergence of several different streams; the fact that many women wish to be mothers and housewives instead of having careers, and the fact that women are pushed into ‘feminine’ (or soft) subjects. On top of that, humanities tend to be studied by those who have money and are just going to university because it’s the expected norm for them. In my own year group studying art history, around 98% of the students are female. Many don’t plan to have careers. I’d also suggest that about 15-20% are what I would call ‘wealthy’ and plan to go into family business and similar. Of course that’s only from my own observations and from talking to people – but I still think it’s interesting nonetheless.

So there you have it. Women and the wealthy often study humanities when they have no intention of getting careers within the field that they study. This skews the figures that are on offer from official sources, since you can’t just discount people because they choose not to have a career after their undergraduate career.