What do you say to an arts graduate? "Big Mac and fries, please." The joke's as desperate as the truth to which it alludes, but if your degree made your French fluent, enabled you to read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or gave you a deep understanding of modern critical theory, you'll probably need to take an additional vocational course to avoid a fate as unwholesome as Chicken McNuggets.
For those graduates unequipped with qualifications in business studies, engineering or information technology, dinosaur status is a more vivid prospect than prizes, glittering or otherwise. A survey conducted last month for the Institute of Personal Development uncovered what all arts graduates up to their necks in rejection letters have suspected for some time - that prospective employers find them as attractive as the average stegosaurus. Of the 106 personnel directors questioned for the survey, just 1 per cent said that they would select the holder of an arts degree if a vocationally-qualified candidate was available. Some of these responses must be the result of pure prejudice: in a business world drunk on buzz concepts like globalisation, the ability to speak a foreign language was found to be the least regarded of skills, despite the shortage of linguists identified by last week's report by the Association of Graduate Recruiters.
Nick Taylor, 23, has a 2:1 in History from Oxford University, and an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute. He's working in the Wedding List section of a well-known London department store, making sure rich young couples don't get bought more toasters than they can use: "there are loads of people working there with degrees in subjects like English and Art History, all on about pounds 4 an hour. I suppose we're selling ourselves short, but I've been unable to get a job that is more demanding in a creative industry."
Emma Jarvie, 23, (Queen Mary and Westfield, French and Italian, 2:2) also doubts whether she'll find employment in a sector relevant to her skills. But rather than commuting from her South Wales home to a low-paid secretarial job in Cardiff or Bristol, she helps out at her parents' B&B. "A lot of my college friends who were languages graduates are doing things like waitressing on Eurostar trains, so that they can carry on using their language skills." Others, she reflects, have given up hope of continuing to use the experience of their course: "A friend of mine who got a really good degree in German now works in a DSS office as a filing clerk."
And this lack of success is not for want of trying for jobs in more pertinent areas: Nick Taylor and his contemporaries do the regular mailshot after Monday's Media Guardian. "I'm not workshy," he insists. "I actually enjoy the discipline of working on my own or in a 9 to 5 framework - but I did think with two degrees under my belt I was allowed a certain amount of discernment. But you have to take what you can get - usually for very little money - in order to keep your head above water. And there's no time to get bitter about it, otherwise you'll end up getting really depressed and going back to your mum."
Kirsty, (not her real name), 23, obtained a 2:1 in English and Art History from Oxford Brookes University. She also has to fight hard to disguise her disappointment: "I worked really hard at college," she recalls. "Harder than most of the science students that I knew." And she's getting personal: "I lived with two geologists who were complete idiots and didn't do a stroke of work - they got through by bullying more nerdy geologists into doing their work for them. They had poorer A-level grades than me - all D's and E's - and they got 2:2s, which is a fairly average degree result. But they got jobs immediately, and one of them is doing engineering in Hong Kong and making a packet." Kirsty argues that openings for arts graduate are disappearing fast: "It used to be that a degree was a guarantee of a job, but now most arts graduates expect to be unemployed - many go through the 'fear period' and go travelling because they don't want to face the prospect of knowing that they're not going to get a job." Arts students in the year above her, studying seemingly marketable disciplines like architecture, warned her "not to be idealistic. 'Whatever you want to do', they said, 'you'll have to take the first thing that comes along.' " Her prognosis is gloomy: "Arts graduates are a becoming a sort of underclass because employers see them as self-indulgent, with little to offer - they see doing an arts degree as a lightweight option - which it isn't."
So, are arts graduates being damned for their desire to develop their minds rather than seeking fluency in corporate jargon? Ian Murray, 20, a final-year sociologist at Paisley University, already has a part-time job in telecommunications. "I don't think arts graduates should be any more protected from harsh realities than any other bit of the population," he argues, with the authority of someone who knows a lot of unemployed shipbuilders. "The world doesn't owe you a living because you can quote poetry, but at the same time it would be shame if every university turned into a glorified business school, rather than places where you might get a bit of personal enlightenment."
At the London-based Graduate Recruitment Company, Jeremy Langley is unsurprised to hear that those with vocational degrees are beating arts graduates to the glittering prizes. Langley, who gained a first-class degree in Communications Studies from Trent University, admits that his degree was "completely uncommercial, but after I graduated I went straight into sales". He sees the relative unmarketability of arts graduates as down to "a lack of industrial experience". To remedy this, he recommends that they "go out to increase their commercial acumen". Rather than taking bar jobs during the vacation, he advises, they should arrange placements in business. "I sound like a right old Tory," he winces as he offers a solution that would give Gillian Shepherd a hot flush: "Higher education is going to have to look at the issue of making students more employable. Since students are giving up cash to take their degrees, they should be spending their money wisely - they should be putting pressure on universities to make their degree more commercially valid."
And if all that sounds to you as dull as virtual ditchwater, you may be right. Langley suggests that embarking on a degree course whose products are craved by employers isn't necessarily a path to an interesting life: "Information Technology is way ahead of other disciplines," he reflects. "But it's also the most boring." A year after graduating, Kirsty feels that experiences have validated her choice of course: "Reality has kicked in - I've adjusted to the idea of not doing what I wanted to do. And whilst I feel disadvantaged by that, I'm probably more interesting for it. I like going to the theatre and galleries and reading. Maybe if I was doing nuclear physics I might have a job, but I wouldn't have anything to talk about."
Elizabeth Curtis, 22, (History, Liverpool University, 2:1) has an even bolshier take the issue: "You might say what's the point in studying an arts subject for three years in order to end up working as a waitress. Well, what's the point of studying for three years to end up as an accountant or a financial adviser? At least waitresses perform a useful social function - bringing people their dinner. Better do that than burn yourself out helping rich companies to dodge tax." Curtis's striking determination to defend the value of non-vocational education is shared by most of our interviewees. Although Emma Jarvie concedes that "having a lit-based degree hasn't been that helpful," she's keen to assert that "it felt like you were learning more than how to make a few business transactions."
And for those graduates who know more about frescoes than Tescos, here are some words of encouragement from David Eyre, vocational support tutor at Manchester Metropolitan University. After extensive research into the career paths of Fine Art graduates, he's concluded that they are "very experienced in facing change, experienced in creating novel situations for themselves, and precipitating change as well as coping with it. Fine Art produces very flexible people who are looking in every area for creative opportunities."
So, when those Information Technology skills begin to look as outmoded as proficiency on the Spinning Jenny, it may well be today's disillusioned arts graduates who are best able to survive.
Honours all round: the Bachelors of Arts who made it big
Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and the first black state-school student to attend Newnham College, Cambridge, where she obtained a 2:2 in History.
Sir Anthony Cleaver, technocrat, ex-chairman of IBM UK Holdings and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (Classics BA Hons, Trinity College, Oxford).
Patricia Hewitt, head of research, Andersen Consulting, ex-Deputy Director, Institute for Public Policy Research (Newnham College, Cambridge, BA Hons in English Literature 2:1).
Anthony Julius, high-flying solicitor whose clients include Princess Diana, and the holder of a first-class English BA Hons from Jesus College, Cambridge.
Verity Lambert, film and TV producer whose hits include Doctor Who, Minder and GBH; she was voted the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of 1982, and graduated in French from the Sorbonne.
Jonathon Porritt, former Friend of the Earth, now director of Forum for the Future (BA Modern Languages, Magdalen College, Oxford, first class).
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