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30 June

In defence of Mickey Mouse degrees

In the current thinking, my drama degree is deemed to have failed me.

By James Graham

Anyone who did an arts or literary degree will be ruefully familiar with the tease from family members, friends or just a random bloke in the pub. “Media studies?” “Art history?!” These are maligned as Mickey Mouse degrees – easy to coast through, containing no inherent value (although I’ve never really understood the analogy, given that Mickey Mouse is probably one of the most enduring symbols of corporate success and capitalistic value in existence).

There’s nothing original about such gentle ribbing, however; what is a new, and now a deeply worrying trend, is the gradual disappearance of creative subjects and social science degrees from colleges and universities, as demonstrated by the suspension of a dedicated English literature degree this week by Sheffield Hallam University. I have some sympathy for Sheffield Hallam, which perhaps unfairly has become the poster child for what is happening elsewhere and, in some cases, with greater severity. English literature and language will continue to feature in its wider offering. It is simply responding to both the Department of Education’s shifting emphasis away from traditional subjects, and to a sharp decline in admissions for creative courses.

I have worries about the diminishing of our educational landscape, and also the future health of arts and entertainment in the UK – which, let’s be honest, constitute one of the country’s last remaining success stories. But my concern about this damaging direction can be summed up by “why?”. Why is the appetite for such subjects dropping in younger generations? Its root cause began six or seven years ago with the evisceration of drama, art and music in primary and secondary schools.

Actually, forgive me, I’m not talking about all schools. For independent and private schools there is an increase in these areas – so someone somewhere must believe those soft and silly subjects have hard and fast value for the individual and the future economy. Access to music in private schools rose by 7 per cent in the five years up to 2020, according to one survey conducted by the British Phonographic Industry. But in state schools there was a drop in music provision by a huge 21 per cent. Ditto drama, and school plays, and trips to the theatre, and dance.

The kindest and most conspiracy-free interpretation of this new imbalance is that it’s the accidental consequence of the solution to a real problem. The arrival of the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc, in secondary schools and a narrower focus on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to combat relatively poor numeracy and literacy levels has seen creativity slip from the priorities of many schools – not just in terms of what they spend money on, but in terms of their philosophy of what they consider worthy. As a pupil, if you are told constantly that arts subjects are going to reap less tangible benefits and are no longer recognised in the core curriculum, then why would you bother?

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But of course, we do know there are tangible benefits to such studies, and not just for those who will end up acting, writing, directing or as a crew member on a film. Creativity, critical thinking, communication skills, empathy, imagination are among the skills that young people and those in higher education gain – which can translate into any field.

Given the huge debt that students must rack up now to attend university, it’s not unreasonable that the government is placing focus on quality and “outcomes”. But its new metric – that graduates must find themselves in highly skilled employment a year after completing a course – is too narrow for artistic subjects. It took me years to sustain myself as a writer – so under the new measurements, my drama degree would have been deemed to have failed me.

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And yet, it didn’t. Not every artist needs to go to university to become one, but I needed to. At a time when educational value wasn’t solely measured on the speed it can deliver you into the workforce, my degree opened my eyes to a world far beyond what I had seen.

[See also: The Oxford English Dictionary: its editors and its history]

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