Adam Pacitti with the billboard in Camden

Debate: In the wake of the billboard graduate, where does the real value lie in an arts degree?

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Billboard Boy Adam Pacitti took drastic measures last week when he spent his last £500 on a billboard in Camden begging employers to give him a job. This, teamed with a website (employadam.com) and a video CV which went viral after being shared on social media sites Twitter and Facebook, led to Adam’s meteoric rise to Z-list fame.

This week he had his first interview and, although he’s been unable to spill the beans on who it’s with, he’s clarified on Twitter that it’s not with MI5…

But aside from being a fabulous story to tell the grandchildren, Adam’s plight addresses an important issue to do with university education, an issue that is often overlooked. Where does the value of an arts degree lie?

We all have our own opinions on the increase in tuition fees (the phrase ‘can of worms’ comes to mind…) but it's a sure thing that in future students will consider more carefully what subject they’re willing to spend £9000 a year on. So here two Independent writers go head-to-head on the degrees most likely to get you ahead.

Chloe Hamilton: Choose a real subject

Adam’s degree may be first class, but his subject choice is not. ‘Micky Mouse’ Media Studies has long since been the butt of academic’s jokes and, unfortunately, the painful truth is employers really do favour degrees in mathematics, sciences or humanities.

It was my mother who told me to do a sensible degree while I worked out my career path.

My 18-year-old self protested, insisting a degree in journalism or media studies would be a great fast track into the career I wanted. But mother Hamilton stood strong and eventually, after a three-year-long slog, I came away with a degree in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics from King’s College London.

RPE may not have equipped me with the practical skills of my chosen trade, but it taught me something arguably more valuable. It taught me to be curious, to think creatively, to write, to analyse and, significantly, to meet deadlines.

Adam Pacitti’s billboard is undeniably a fantastic idea; however I wonder whether he would have had to go to such lengths if he’d studied English, Law or Physics.

Call me a snob, but it worries me that thousands of students could be paying £9000 a year for a degree in subjects such as Media Studies that will see them scoffed at in later life.

To clarify, I’m not singing university’s praises. I think universities have a lot to answer for in terms of the contact hours they offer for the fees they charge. I also don’t think university is for everyone. There is, after all, nothing more valuable than relevant work experience.

Retail magnate Theo Paphitis ran a small tuck shop when he was 15 and set up his own business when he was 23. He noted the popularity of mobile phones and bought into NAG Telecoms, later becoming joint chairman of the company. He has since turned a number of failing companies into profitable businesses, as well as investing in new enterprises. Surprisingly, he managed all this without a degree in business studies.

We should remember that universities are trying to sell their courses. Young people should not be seduced by the promise of a fast track into their chosen career. There is no such thing. And if you’re going to spend £9000 a year on something, shouldn’t it be something worthwhile?

Oliver Duggan: Who cares what degree?

‘Micky Mouse’ Media Studies has, indeed, long since been the butt of academic jokes. They fly around the common rooms and seminars of each ‘fake’ subject’s more esteemed older brother; politics rags on sociology, journalism lampoons media studies, and everyone shits on geography.

It is the lowest common-denominator of a superiority complex that festers in the minds of a students and staff; the undergraduate equivalent of Roy Chubby Brown.

And for all its supposed hilarity, where does it get us.

After three years of study, or four for the sandwich-year kids (liberal freaks), we don our caps and gowns, take a short but trepidations trip up a flight of stairs and are awarded entry into the elite club of ‘everybody else’.

Within days the old hierarchies of the humanities and sciences drift into catacombs of personal history, their significance supplanted as the oppressive reality of unemployment rolls into view.

Perhaps, for the few at the top and the few at the bottom, the rankings of academia retain their importance, evolving as they often do from grades on an essay to pounds on a pay-roll.

I doubt that can be marked quite so easily for the plethora of complexities in the middle. Yes, the double-Firsts from Oxford are more often rewarded with double-screens in the city and the Thirds from former polytechnics more often join third in-line at the job centre.

But for everyone else, and everyone else includes Adam Pacitti with his first class degree in Media Studies from the University of Winchester, the superiority of one subject or one institution over another just sinks away, melting into the furniture of adolescent experience. 

It is important to note, though, that there are some prescient insights that can be garnered from three-years in the media studies game. Adam can probably engage critically with variety of media platforms, understanding their relationship with consumers more completely than he most. He can probably also analyse the inherited bias of content-rivals, and reel off Noam Chomsky’s five filters for manufacturing consent without hesitation.

But my argument isn’t that media students have happened upon the last bastion of academic rigour in rapidly commercialising system. And nor is it that Adam’s campaign is a particularly laudable example of community engagement or innovative thinking that is bestowed solely on the graduates of Winchester.

It is that employadam.com, and the degree that encouraged it, is an enjoyable addition to the increasingly rich tapestry of graduate unemployment. Intentionally or not, Adam’s smug 10-foot bespectacled self-portrait is an impressively light-hearted indictment of the status quo, pointing to brash plea for academic parity.

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