A student reads at the Hunterian Art Gallery on campus

Are ‘soft’ subjects for the rich?

By Eve Connor

Writer Eve Connor discusses why undertaking “soft” degrees should not be reserved for the most privileged students.

What constitutes a “soft” subject? It’s hard to say, although if you’ve ever been derisively asked “what are you going to do with that?” after revealing your degree course name, you may be studying one. Implicit in this line of questioning is that if you are not affluent or unfazed by the idea of potential joblessness, you are in for a miserable graduate life full of debt, regret and unemployment. “Soft” subjects are exclusively for the wealthy, right? Just look at drama: how often do you scroll through a British thespian’s Wikipedia page to find that they were educated at a top private school like Eton (a school that seemingly propels all its students into either acting royalty or Number 10)? The conclusion is that to pursue these avenues you need a private education, connections, and money. 

It’s a similar story with my own degree: art history. A subject considered so “soft” that in 2018 its A-level was almost scrapped in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, even though it was only offered in a handful of state schools anyway. By detractors, it’s considered an elitist sit-off subject reserved for those in the upper echelons of society where the vocabulary required to discuss art is second nature; it is not for the 93%. Students at state schools rarely have access to the educational opportunities of their more affluent peers, and when they do, the opportunities are directed towards the seemingly more marketable skills gained in “hard” subjects like STEM. At my inner-city secondary school, most trips to local universities revolved around science – don’t get me wrong, my school and my teachers were wonderful, but there was a sense that “soft” subjects – or even the humanities – just weren’t a viable option. 

Even when students do decide to undertake “soft” degrees, job prospects are a significant worry. In my first art history seminar of the semester someone boldly asked whether we will be able to get jobs after completing our degree. Though it may have elicited a couple of smirks, it hit upon an anxiety that many of us probably have; an anxiety that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Last year, a government-backed “Rethink, Reskill, Reboot” campaign advertisement came under fire for suggesting a ballerina retrain into IT. Not only does this devalue the years of hard work it takes to break into such an industry, but it stinks of elitism. It leans dangerously towards the notion that pursuing a “soft” subject like dance or drama is a privilege reserved for the affluent while the rest of us should seek to become “productive” members of society by acquiring a “practical” skill set.

It is undoubtedly a complicated issue. Though transferable skills are increasingly valued by employers, very few of us – regardless of our financial situation – can undertake a degree simply for the joy of knowledge. University is, in many ways, an investment, in which we must weigh up the risk and reward, but I believe enjoyment is integral to success. Passing over a so-called “soft” subject you love in favour of a “hard” subject you’re less keen on may lead to a lack of motivation, low attainment and ultimately, unhappiness.

So, if you want to study a “soft” degree – whatever that may be – don’t hastily disregard it as “not for you”. If we continue to present “soft” degrees as a privilege reserved for wealthier students, we perpetuate a vicious cycle where these subjects are branded as elitist and, as such, remain so. 


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