Data Anxiety: Why Mine are the Worst Financial Prospects

A degree in the arts or humanities is a poor financial investment, especially for males, according to recent research by Professor Ian Walker of Lancaster’s Department of Economics and Dr Yu Zhu of the University of Kent.

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‘Degree subjects were divided into four major groupings, mirroring those used in the Labour Force Survey: science (including health-related degrees), technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); law, economics and management (LEM); arts, humanities and other social sciences (OSSAH); and combined degrees (COMB)’

The most striking feature of these graphs is that they indicate that in the case of females, completing a degree in any of the four subject areas tends to be highly advantageous in terms of earnings — while merely attaining A-levels without continuing to higher education is a poor move indeed. In the sample from which this data is derived, this appears to be the case; whether a larger sample would offer significantly different results, I can only guess. Nor can I be sure of the cause of this phenomenon. What is fairly clear is that mean earnings for women appear to be lower than those for men.

If I look only within the estimates for the male gender, it is clear the a degree in the arts and humanities isn’t that much better a choice than going straight into the job market with A levels. According to estimates from the working paper(Walker I and Zhu Y, 2010) a male with a poor arts and humanities degree, when tuition fees are taken into account, stands to lose on his investment. The table below indicates that a second class degree in the arts and humanities could be far more deleterious to the long term earning prospects of men, than to those of women. This tendency is only slightly more marked when one takes the £7000 annual tuition fee into account, meaning that an arts and humanities degree is not going to be that much more economically worthless when the higher fees come into effect.

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Table 8. from Walker I and Zhu Y, 2010, Differences by Degree: Evidence of the Net Financial Rates of Return to Undergraduate Study for England and Wales, Lancaster University Management School

What frustrates me about the data used in this research is the four broad categorises used. I suspect that someone with a psychology, philosophy or history degree would be better off than a fine art student like me. However, they are all lumped together so one cannot tell.

Research like this does make me feel a bit anxious — what if I want to support a family?— but it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t choose this career path for monetary reasons. I am quite aware that acquiring further qualifications and then teaching or lecturing are my best options for work. Of course, there is the slim chance that I could support myself on my own practice, but that’s not worth considering as a realistic outcome.

My main reasons for studying fine art are quite existential, or maybe just selfish and concerned with my own being above all else: I want to be able to fulfil myself creatively, on my own terms and without relying on external agencies. I am afraid of becoming trapped in something that I don’t find fulfilling because of external pressure, If I were a scientist relying on corporate funding for example. I wanted to keep my options open, art can be almost anything, and I know that at my age, I have no idea of what I really want to do.

I have had trouble building or finding meaning in my life and I feel art is the best means to pursue it. As I see it, if I can’t make or find meaning in art, as free cultural production, I have little hope of finding meaning elsewhere.

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