Arts vs. Stem

Which type of degree really is better?

It’s the age-old debate that recently reared its ugly head again on St Fessdrews, spawning a horde of opinionated posts, each advocating for a different side of the argument. Citing disparities in employment prospects, marking criteria and teaching styles to justify either the supremacy of science-based degrees or an education in the humanities, the Facebook dispute is indicative of an ever-growing divide between the arts and STEM subjects. While great thinkers like Plato once dabbled in both mathematics and philosophy, there seems to be no such flexibility in the mind of the modern student. So, which one is more valuable?  


Science seems to be the obvious choice. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists, health experts and economists have been pushed to the forefront of the media and the public eye as they offer insights into the spread of the disease, develop vaccines, and make economic forecasts. Innovative, experimental, and pioneering, science constantly seems to be pushing at the boundaries of what we conceive of as possible, making strides that help us to live longer, travel further and faster, and become more connected to one another.  


While not every science student will go on to become a trailblazing innovator, they still manage to make their mark in the UK economy. With an impressive employment rate of 89%, STEM graduates go on to work in significant areas of the economy such as the health sector, banking and finance, manufacturing, and engineering and construction. Equipped with problem-solving, numerical, innovation, and scientific research skills that are in demand in the workforce, employers see them as highly desirable.  


As more educational and economic importance is placed upon scientific disciplines, the arts seem to have fallen by the wayside. Universities have found their arts-based courses labelled as ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, a term first coined in 2003 by Higher Education Minister Margaret Hodge, who defined these degrees as ones where “the content is not as rigorous as one would expect” and where “the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market”. Courses including Geography, History, English and Film Studies have since been branded as being part of this infamous group due to their perceived lack of employability.  


However, those who argue against humanities degrees would do well to take notice of a recent study that found that students of arts-based subjects are just as likely to find full-time employment as STEM graduates. With an employment rate of 88%, arts graduates are more likely to find work in the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy. Encouraged to think creatively and critically, pursue independent research, communicate their ideas and collaborate, it seems that, far from obtaining ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, humanities students emerge from university armed with skills that allow them to succeed in the workforce.  




Some of the UK’s and the world’s most influential business leaders have backgrounds in the arts. Former Avon CEO Andrea Jung studied English Literature at Princeton; Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina graduated from Stanford with a degree in Medieval History and Philosophy; Very’s CEO Henry Birch was a politics student at Edinburgh. They continue to prove Margaret Hodge wrong.  


But, as many on St Fessdrews pointed out, we shouldn’t become entangled in this arts or science debate. Both are important to society. Both produce capable and talented young graduates who go on to great things. Instead of focusing on employability statistics, we should be encouraging students at university to choose what they are passionate about and enjoy, whether that is Maths, Anthropology, Politics or Chemistry, or an unorthodox combination of both the arts and science.  



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