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Lessons In The University of Life
Blowing the gaff on Arts Degrees ...

Kezia Richmond

We should all know by now that life is what you make it, just go get it. Even Radiohead have gone all positive and even Oprah. The whole planet has cottoned on to the notion that moaning is so 1990s and all this just as, oh dear Lord, just as I have the stupidity to graduate in English Literature and move back home to try and find work. Shake your head in the time honoured tradition of all Arts students because, surely, you all know what I had been avoiding: life - post graduation is when, (screams of terror) the science and I.T students get their own back.

It was once hurriedly intimated to me by a wild-eyed, ridiculously drunk Marketing student, behind a pillar in the back room of an unpopular Manchester pub, that as a non-Arts undergraduate with 10 hours of lectures a week or the something approaching human exploitation levels that they endure, it is a duty to sneer at all Arts students. With the disgust passed down from their 1980s Yuppie mentors, it is a matter of honour to declare, ‘History of Art?? What are you going to do with that then?’ and wait patiently for the look of awful revelation to pass across the deluded Arts student’s face. The equation seems to run something like: 3 years of lie-ins and reading books equals a life time of job market misery, whereas 3 years of 9am lectures and computer projects guarantees £30K graduate employment schemes and smug self-congratulation.

Maybe I exaggerate. Perhaps, even though this perception exists, it does so in the form of a harmless, overblown, stereotype. To class Arts subjects as a non-vocational waste of time against more vocationally orientated subjects is, of course, narrow-minded. A degree in History of Art is a good idea if your burning ambition is to become an Art Historian. Even if you just really liked Art, had no ambition of becoming an Art Historian but decided you could put up with studying it for three years, there remains a strong argument for its validity.

The trump card in the justification stakes, the arts degree shows an employers a certain level of academic and intellectual ability . This argument stands firm as a defence against accusations of time-wasting. The Arts are an essential part of our culture and studying them is nothing to be ashamed of. Blow the consequences, let’s all run down to the nearest gallery. Hurrah!

However, I have graduated, I have crossed the threshold and I have seen the light, and people, it is the cold light of day. I was, and still am, guilty of the one response that seems to justify all criticism thrown at students by employed types. If asked what I can use my degree for, I simply mumble, ‘dunno’, because, truthfully, I do not have a clue. The temptation to live off the dole forever in utter self-pity because my degree didn’t lead a direct gateway to a swish job with a fat pay packet assails me every day and perhaps it is here that the Arts v Other subjects divide really opens.

A degree as a qualification is certainly a good thing. But, what if your chosen subject leads you in no real career direction and you quite wanted to make use of your knowledge of Dadaist poetry or Himalayan mountain pottery? What if you don’t want to be temping for the next two years whilst you wait for a position to arise at the local pottery Museum? What if, like me, your home town happens to be England’s equivalent of Silicon Valley where the only job you are realistically qualified for is Office Junior in a nasty, grey, computer company.

Increasingly, it is becoming difficult to feel smug about my 6 hours of tutorials a week in comparison to my computer science flatmates who faithfully tapped away from 9am till 4pm before downing mouse and legging it to the pub.

Several desperate trips to the careers centre revealed their dominance of the situation. Whilst companies actively hunted down recruits for their graduate schemes for aspiring Accountants or Food Scientists, looking under the Arts and Media section in a typical Graduate Jobs 2000 booklet revealed a half-hearted referral to a training scheme and the timely reminder that a huge percentage of jobs are found through contacts.

Compare IT graduate friend A with Arts graduate B (that’d be me). A landed a very swish job in her degree field, admittedly after a bit of a difficult application process, and now works in central London, earning pots of cash. She is not an exception in the graduate scheme rule. Some have the title of Graduate Engineer, some work for massive accounting firms and get £10,000 bonuses after the first year and some land training programmes in Miami or even Peru. Meanwhile, Arts graduate B is back at home, working an 11 hour days in a coffee shop with a group of 15 year olds and is earning £4:50 an hour.

Life in the real world is proving to be a harsh learning process. I now know that paying £2 for a cup of coffee is truly ridiculous. I also know that it is the stressed out suits from the multi-national round the corner who buy said extortionate coffee. I know that from my fellow Interior Design graduate work-mate to the coffee salesman with a degree in Economics, the thought, ‘Did I choose the right degree?’ niggled at us all.

Most bizarrely, I know with renewed conviction that the blurry decision I made to study my particular degree was the right decision. I would really rather be in a coffee shop than earning squillions in smog city. It is never all about the money. Even my jammy graduate high-flyer friends are real people, not the money-centred computer geeks they pretend to be when they tease me about my rather desperate lack of direction.

I’ve been doing my research and apparently, the new working world is based on portfolio careers; gaining a wide range of skills in a variety of jobs across the subject area that interests you. It is about creativity and luckily for me, I have studied that. Right now I am learning the vital, resisting the urge to throw latte in the face of snotty business men skills that are essential to the career of an aspiring... aspiring Journalist? Nahhh. Retail Manager? Nope. Erm, Theatre Director, Cattery Owner...

© Kezia Richmond 2000

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