Why Ireland Needs its Arts Graduates

A new book is to be published in Britain soon which is called The Myth of Meritocracy. It examines the reasons why it is that, despite the long-standing lipservice paid to the idea of meritocracy in Britain (and plenty of other places too), by and large the children of working-class parents end up in working-class jobs still. As the blurb on the publisher’s website has it “In a grossly unequal society, the privileges of the parents unfailingly become the privileges of the children.”

This is no situation unique to Britain, although in some ways the problems of the meritocracy – and its supposed “fairness” – have at least best been unpicked. Following the recent death of Barnsley-born author Barry Hines, a Guardian article written by Paul Mason noted that “educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.” In Ireland, we are still in thrall to the belief that the Leaving Certificate and the CAO system means that Irish education is a true meritocracy. That, by blindly operating on the basis of your results, anyone is capable of a good Leaving Certificate, something which in the eyes of many is still the key to success in Ireland. But of course, long before the student sits in the exam hall in summer for paper one of the English test in the Leaving Certificate, all kinds of factors will have impacted their ability to succeed in this supposed meritocracy.

These things came to mind as I read an article today from the Irish Times, headlined “Computer science graduates in demand, but arts earn least.” The article tells us nothing that most in Ireland don’t already know. The article is based largely on the findings of a new report from Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, entitled WHAT DO GRADUATES DO? The Class of 2014, An Analysis of the First Destination of University and College of Education GraduatesAmong other things the report highlights the poor earning of arts graduates in their first job, often around €13,000 – a paltry sum when compared to their peers in subjects like computer science or finance. (What Do Graduates Do?, 44). Another interesting fact which came back from the report, based on responses from 18, 500 (69%) of people who graduated in the 2014 cohort of under- and post-graduate students in Irish third level institutions was this: some 24% of Art and Humanities students felt that their degree  was irrelevant/most irrelevant to their employment. (What Do Graduates Do?, 35).

The majority of arts and humanities graduates (19.6%) not working in education in Ireland in 2014 were working in Distribution. Outside of the Republic, most of them work in non-market services (44.4%). Of these, fully one quarter (25%) work in the category “Other Education, including language schools”. (What Do Graduates Do?, 64– 65)

The report is largely a positive one from the point of view of the HEA, since the overall numbers of graduates remaining on in Ireland is on the up, even though this is only marginal. But what does this report say to us more broadly about the place of the arts and humanities in Ireland?

I read that report and see one glaring thing: the job opportunities for Irish Arts graduates are financially unsustainable. But this does not mean that those with Arts degrees should be feel ashamed or embarrassed by their choice. Rather, it is time for Irish society, and our state, to value Arts students. And I don’t just mean financially, although this is important. Consider for instance the amount of funding awarded to the Irish Arts Council from 2007-2016:

2007: €83m
2008: €81.6m
2009: €73.4m
2010: €68.7m
2011: €65.2m
2012: €63.2m
2013: €59.9m
2014: €56.7m
2015: €56.9m
2016: €59.1m (Source: Journal of MusicOctober 2015)

While I am not going to focus overly on the ins and outs of Arts Council funding – who gets it and who doesn’t – it strikes me that in a country where so many of our graduates are Arts graduates, where our government and many more are willing to wheel out our world-famous artists as proof of the creativity of the Irish people, the amount of funding given to the arts is in reality quite small. And the paltry pay our Arts graduates receive in their first employment is indicative not just of a sense that an education in the arts isn’t valuable, isn’t lucrative, but isn’t even *valued*. By that I mean that arts graduates, despite often being sold what seems like a sop about transferable skills (shudder), are rarely considered to be ideal for the business environment.

Their ability to critically analyse, think laterally, write well, communicate clearly, are too often considered less valuable than they should be by those in the private sector. The image of the lazy, unimaginative and ultimately unmotivated Arts graduate persists in Ireland. But it’s simply untrue, and there is a small cottage industry of online articles which provide plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. That view of the Arts graduate is a hangover of the late 1990s in Ireland, and it is time to move beyond it.

But the issue is bigger than the overemphasis in many job markets on having the “right” qualification before you can get in the door. Or on making sure we find a place in the dominant fields of computer tech and finance in Ireland for our adaptable and intelligent Arts graduates. The truth is that the problems for Arts graduates is that there is an expectation in many fields not just to work for free on a cycle of never-ending internships, for the inedible – and unedifying – promise of exposure, but to be happy with your lot. They are supposed to be delighted to be earning anything at all, and to have diminished expectations for what their lives can be materially, on the basis of their desire to study something other than the kind of subject that’ll get you a “good job.”

As for working-class Irish kids who might have an interest in the Arts, the mountain is even more treacherous. As grants and aid are cut back, and will likely continue to be, the brief flowering of the Irish version of the scholarship boy/girl of the 1960s in Ireland is already largely ended. While people will sing the praises of the writing of the likes of Sean O’Casey during the decade of centenaries, few will hear his message that a world of working-class Irish life deserves better expression than the hoary old class snobbery of tv shows like Damo and Ivor. (see Michael Pierce’s chapter in David Convery’s Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class life for more on this)

As another HEA report, published at the beginning of 2016, the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019has it: “Participation of those from the semi-skilled and unskilled socio-economic groups is at 26%, while there is practically
full participation by those from the higher professional socio-economic group.” Add to this the difficulties that come with disabilities and other factors that disproportionately those already less well-off in Ireland, and the increased number of Special Needs Assistants is to be welcomed, with the number standing at 7,020 nationwide, according to a recent report in TheJournal.ie. Yet, even still it is difficult to imagine selling the real values of an Arts degree to a young student from a working-class area of Ireland when the first money being earned by those graduating is in the region of €13,000. More pay is important, but so too is more respect for the values that the Arts and Humanities teaches students.

In my view, it is time to start valuing our Arts graduates. Taking a chance on an Arts graduate in a job where their degree doesn’t match exactly with the job description might be a worthwhile risk. Arts graduates deserve to earn decent wages, and they deserve to be treated as valuable and valued members of our society.

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