This week, as part of our ongoing blog series discussing Unifrog’s new Horizons report, we’re turning our attention to which university subjects students are exploring on the platform.
Liberal Arts is enjoying a new rise in popularity
We’ve seen a surge of interest in the university subject of Liberal Arts. For current Year 12s (entering university in 2020) and Year 11s (entering university in 2021), Liberal Arts is now in the top 10 most popular subjects shortlisted for UK universities, something which has never happened before. For current Year 12s it takes first place, ahead of Law and Medicine.
Liberal Arts isn’t really a ‘subject’ in the sense that we’re used to in the UK; rather, it’s a way of studying that brings together a range of subjects. Also referred to as ‘Liberal Arts and Sciences’, it has its roots in the basic curriculum of late Classical Greece and covers interdisciplinary fields of study such as the arts, philosophy, social sciences, mathematics, natural sciences and religious studies. At the University of Durham, for example, students study modules in up to four subjects from the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. They can, for instance, combine Theology with Anthropology, Music with Sociology, or Philosophy with Classics and Geography. At the University of Birmingham, students typically pick one subject (their ‘Major’) and then compliment this with a variety of different subjects from the arts, social sciences and sciences.If they decide to focus their studies across the sciences, they even have the option to graduate with a Bachelor of Science. There are countless ways for students to explore their interests and, with more and more UK universities offering this way of studying, the range of options available to students is likely to increase further.
But what can you do with a Liberal Arts degree?
The popularity of Liberal Arts is perhaps surprising given that, in the UK, there appears to be a political shift towards vocational subjects (those that directly relate to an area of employment) and away from the arts and social sciences. Think tank UK Onward have recently concluded in their A question of degree report that the government should ‘crack down’ on what it considers to be ‘low-value courses’ that are ‘unlikely to give [students] an economic return’, such as creative arts, combined studies, English and social studies, and instead divert them towards graduate-level technician education and ‘high-value courses’ such as medicine, law, economics and the hard sciences.This follows the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (or EBacc) in 2010, which was designed by the government to better equip students for ‘progression to further study and work’ and preceded a decrease in GCSE entries to subjects not explicitly mentioned within it, in particular the arts (including drama, music and art) and religious studies.
In addition, not everyone is convinced that a wide breadth of education at degree level is a good thing. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, has pointed out to The Telegraph that ‘it’s important that [degrees] are focused and actually mean something. The great danger with this approach is that degrees become a kind of pick-and-mix, with no great appeal to employers or a platform for further study.’
The benefits of a broad education
Unifrog’s findings suggest that these concerns are not necessarily shared by young people. This might be because Liberal Arts degrees are an appealing option for students who want to defer specialization until a later point, and it could also be argued that they develop a broad range of skills that are highly sought after by employers, even within STEM-focused fields of employment such as technology.
After unveiling the iPad 2 back in 2011, for instance, Steve Jobs told his audience that “it’s within Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with Liberal Arts, married with the Humanities, that yields the result that makes our hearts sing”. Microsoft President, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and Research, Harry Shum, recently echoed this view in their new book The Future Computed: "Skilling up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering, and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions."
Even outside technology, it isn’t difficult to see how a graduate’s ability to draw creative links across a broad spectrum would make them a valuable asset to any employer. LinkedIn recently found that 57% of senior leaders value soft skills over hard skills and that, of those soft skills, creativity and adaptability rank amongst the top five most valuable.
Professor Carl Gombrich, Academic Lead and Head of Teaching at London Interdisciplinary School, supports the view that there is a place for Liberal Arts graduates across a wide range of sectors: “Almost every job that graduates now enter requires some combination of science and non-science component [...] Going forward, it’s vital that students are empowered to make connections across different disciplines and industries to find new solutions to complex problems.”
If this message is escaping some, that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case with our current Year 11s and 12s, and we look forward to seeing which university subjects they go on to pursue in the coming years.
To read more about this and other key findings from Chapter 2 of our report, including which factors are the most important to students when researching university courses, download our full Horizons report.
Horizons report, Unifrog
A Question of Degree report, UK Onward
Entries to arts subjects at Key Stage 4, Education Policy Institute
Universities to offer US-style ‘major and minor’ degrees, The Telegraph
Steve Jobs: Technology and Liberal Arts, YouTube:
Microsoft’s president says liberal arts majors are necessary for the future of tech, Business Insider
The Skills Companies Need Most in 2019 - And How To Learn Them, LinkedIn Learning