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Students worrying about ‘value for money’ miss the point of an arts degree

23 June 2015

12:05 PM

23 June 2015

12:05 PM

University towns are already awash with fur-trimmed gowns and proud parents, but behind the smiles there’s a glimmer of resentment: four in 10 of those graduating this year think they’ve been ripped-off.

According to a survey of 1000 final-year students by ComRes, students are split over whether they think their degree was good value for money. One factor determining their verdict was their subject, with two-thirds of those studying science, technology, engineering and maths saying their course was worth the fees. Just 44 per cent of humanities and social science students agreed.

An obvious reason for this discrepancy is contact time: medics get at least 20 contact hours a week at most universities, while the average is closer to eight for those studying subjects like English or History. I study History at Oxford, and I reckon I had about 15 hours with academics over the course of the entire summer term.

So is an Oxford education worth £200 an hour? Obviously not. But ‘value for money’ student surveys tend to ignore the fact that how much time you spend with tutors has very little to do with how worthwhile your degree is.


A degree in medicine does what it says on the tin, but an arts degree is what you make of it. Some of my fellow historians genuinely do spend all week working, and others can whip up their weekly essay in 12 hours after a week of solid partying.

But between the wannabe dons and the party animals there’s a happy middle way. I spend about half of my time at university working, leaving me with over three days a week to broaden my horizons (and boost my employment prospects) in ways the lab-bound chemists and medics can only dream of.

This year, I’ve taken Mandarin lessons, led a student charity, written articles, edited a documentary and tutored at an under-performing school. I started my first application form for a graduate job yesterday, and it was these experiences – not my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon gender norms  – that I kept drawing on for answers.

Experience outside the lecture theatre is what employers look for in graduates, and arts students have so much more time to play with: both Robert Winston and The Spectator’s Rory Sutherland have made it clear that they want to hire young people who did more at university than just study.

Most of the students who resent their £9,000 a year are labouring under the false impression that what they’re paying for is to be taught; for arts students especially, it’s not. Being a student is the most opportunity-filled three years most of these graduates will ever have: working life rarely provides the same level of freedom.

And as long as they’ve made the most of their time at university, all those disgruntled finalists will give a very different response if, in 10 years time, they’re asked again whether their degree was worth the money.

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