The Arts: Worth it or Worthless?

The idea that a Bachelor of Arts degree is useless is by no means a new one. For years, the debate between choosing to study something you love, or studying something that will earn you money has been at the forefront of every prospective university students mind. But where does the responsibility lie for these the negative connotations, and how do we ensure that the arts are taken as seriously as degrees like Medicine and Law?

I started studying International History and Politics at the University of Leeds last year. I knew that with a humanities degree, it would be highly unlikely that I’d be in lectures and seminars from 9-5 everyday, but it was a shock when I found out that I’d have only 7 contact hours per week in my first semester, and just 5 in the second. I, like the majority of UK university students pay £9000 in tuition fees. Although that rate is extortionate for any degree, knowing that I’m paying such a large amount for so little makes my head spin. For those studying science, engineering, technology, or mathematics (STEM), who often have long and intense days at university, that £9k figure seems almost (but not quite) justifiable. My first year at university doesn’t count towards my final grade, so I presumed that my second year would bring about a heavier workload and more hours in university. I was wrong. Having just received my timetable for the upcoming year, I was dismayed to see that my contact hours have been reduced even further, to just 4 hours per week. In fact, one of my compulsory modules has no contact time at all, and I’m essentially paying a sixth of my tuition fees for the privilege; that’s an expensive library card.

With such a disparity between arts and STEM degrees, is there any wonder as to why the arts attract such a negative stereotype? With hardly any time spent in university, I find myself rushing to fill my spare time, which does have its benefits. It gives me the chance to have a part-time job, get more involved with societies, and write and edit articles. But I can’t shake the feeling of wanting to be taught a subject I love. Knowing that what I study isn’t as highly regarded as STEM degrees is disheartening, and I would gladly take on a heavier workload if it meant that my degree would be taken more seriously by my future employers.

The negative attitudes against arts degrees start forming long before the first day at university. At GCSE level, students may be discouraged from taking “easy” subjects such as Media, Dance, and Drama, but they are encouraged, and in some cases forced to take the Triple Science Award which delivers a GCSE in each of the science subjects. Students begin their GCSE’s at just 14 years of age, an age at which many have no idea of what they want to be doing in 5 years’ time, and perhaps rightly so; they’re only children. But we’re already instilling the idea that in order to be successful, they have to limit themselves to a select few subjects. Fast forward two years to A-Levels, and the same pattern is apparent. It’s common to see students taking Maths and Science, or English and History. But it’s rare that the two mix.

Revising for your final A-Level exams as well as making the necessary preparations for university makes for a frightening and anxious final year at school, and it’s important that all students are given the adequate help and advice to ensure that they’re ready for their future. However, this is often not the case. Those who are hoping to go on to study Medicine and Law, or aspiring to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge University have to take a number of exams that play a key role in determining whether or not they will gain a university place. Looking back to my final year at Sixth Form, I remember that these students went to weekly meetings where they were given help and advice on their future plans. But when it came to everyone else, we mostly had only each other to turn to. Of course, this is not to say that Medical students didn’t deserve the help they received, but rather that help shouldn’t just be available to a select few.

A Bachelor of Arts degree includes anything from Art History to Psychology, Creative Writing to Media, including the humanities Geography, History, and Philosophy. We need people to continue taking these degrees, but there needs to be drastic change in the way that they’re taught. The arts are vital. They help us to think critically about the world around us, and they provide us with a rounded view of societies past and present. But is studying them for just a few hours a week really worth the money?

Not everyone can excel in STEM subjects, and that’s more than okay. The problem is that by consistently focusing on and recruiting for STEM degrees, universities risk producing an abundance of arts graduates who are filled with nothing but worry for their futures. Providing that the resources are available, dedicating just a few more hours per week to arts degrees could make a huge difference to those who study them, whether it be in terms of providing them with the help they need and deserve, or just simply showing that their degree field is legitimate and worth studying for.

Testing, testing 1 2 3…

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“But your GCSEs don’t even matter”

“GCSEs are easy”

”GCSEs don’t mean anything when you do “A” Levels”

It’s GCSE results day tomorrow, which means that the inevitable stream of belittling comments on the examinations which 14-16 year olds sit in the UK is creeping up on us. For many in Year 11, this will be the most nerve-wracking day of their life so far, as they await grades which determine the next steps they can take in their future.

To put to bed the criticisms written above: GCSEs do matter in terms of what you go on to do next. They are far from easy. (Some Universities will take them into account if that is what you decide to do.)

 To set the record straight, the young people of England and Wales are put under an immense amount of pressure. In fact, coming to university and talking to my friends from all around the world made me realise just how intense our education system is for young people, some of whom are sitting examinations at aged just 14. For example, in Canada, there is a lot more project-based work, often marked as coursework, and grades are taken at various points over the final years of schooling, but there is no intense set period of time at the end of each of the four years by any means. In Norway, they have a system where some exams are responded to orally, giving students more variety in the way they are assessed. In Scotland, they can get into university after three years of examinations, as opposed to the four in England and Wales if you do GCSEs and “A” Levels. The long and short of it is, by European and even global standards, we have some of the most intense and rigorous testing methods, and it is making our young people unwell.

I recently read this article in the Guardian about the pressure of GCSE examinations and it reminded me of my time doing GCSEs three years ago now.

 A 2004 CAMHS study found that 1 in 10 young people suffer from a diagnosed mental health disorder, with evidence suggesting that it is has been on the rise over the past few decades. I worry for a generation who now sit the vast majority of their GCSEs at the end of Year 11, meaning that some of them have around twenty exams within the space of about a month. At 16, most of us already had a lot to deal with in the whole “growing up game” that takes place: changing friendships and relationships, morphing personalities, sometimes tumultuous family dynamics, the list goes on. Add to that the pressure of exams that determine a large part of your future and it’s pretty difficult.

 For me, I worried about my brother, who is currently awaiting his results this Thursday, that this pressure would be too much for him. However, miraculously, he remained relatively calm. Still, I really don’t think a 16 year-old should have had to put themselves under such intense pressure and work so hard simply out of the fear of what that little piece of paper will have on it in August.

 I think a lot of that fear came from my personal experience of GCSE examinations. On the first day of Year 10, aged 14, I went into school, met my new classes and teachers, was told about these all important examinations which were going to determine my future, and felt very overwhelmed. On the second day of Year 10, in the morning, I was physically sick. Naturally thinking I had a bug, I didn’t go into school. But then it happened on the third and fourth and fifth and sixth day. It slowly became apparent to me and my family that this wasn’t a ‘physical’ illness, but the result of stress and anxiety. This stress and anxiety stemmed from thinking about how this would ultimately impact what job I could get at age 21 when catching every episode of Hollyoaks was still one of my top priorities in life. My attendance was sporadic in Year 11. I couldn’t face sitting my exams in the Main Hall because of the intensity of the environment. I only went in because I knew that I had no choice, because it was illegal not to. I did not put a full week in at school from January of my Year 11 until the day I finished.

I came away with 5A*s and 4As, as well as crippling anxiety, at times depression and a round of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And the truly sad thing is, it was worth it. I am now at the University of Edinburgh on a course that required me to get 5A*s at GCSE for a guaranteed place. I had to make myself ill in order to get where I wanted to go in life. And really, that’s pretty damned wrong.

I know that I am not alone in my story. The answer was not to test less throughout the year and simply move all of the exams to the end of Year 11, as they have done recently. Surely it is to reduce the number of examinations and pieces of coursework overall; to lessen the strain on young people. To try to do something about the emphasis that some top universities still place on exams sat at age 15 or 16, shifting it so that it is almost entirely based on ‘A’ Levels when students are much older and have less subjects and so less exams. Something has to change. It has to change fast, because for every year this unnecessary amount of pressure continues, more stories like mine emerge.