Who are arts degrees for, in the wake of Covid-19?

Final year showcases are critical for drama students to get a foothold in the competitive entertainment industry. Agents come to watch the performances that students have prepared for four years and select the most promising actors and actresses to sign onto their agencies. 

So, when in 2020 they were cancelled due to Covid, panic and uncertainty reigned in many drama schools’ halls. But it wasn’t just drama schools: film, dance, and music schools were all affected, as they all rely on in-person performances and interactions to produce and showcase their work. 

“It was chaos. I had friends in music and drama schools who were in tears,” said Janice Wijaya, a Royal Academy of Music alumna who now heads a piano school in East London. “It’s the most important time of your degree, and just like that it was gone.” 

But Covid-19 didn’t affect every student equally. 

Before the pandemic hit, an arts education was already starting to become the preserve of the well-off. When undergraduate tuition fees increased to £9,250 in 2010, from £3,225 the year prior, it suddenly became a lot harder for students to justify arts degrees that had notoriously been lagging science and business degrees in salaries after graduation for years. And that’s if they can find a job.

Pre-Covid-19, the full-time employment rate for arts graduates was 47%. Compared to 62% for business graduates, that’s a full 25% less arts graduates employed full-time. Furthermore, 25% of arts graduates were in more precarious part-time employment – compared to 7% for business students, and the highest among all graduates.

It is also clear that applying for admissions to arts universities is harder for students of lower socio-economic status. Data from UCAS showed that the lowest POLAR4 quintiles, a system used to measure local disadvantage in the UK, suffered the largest decline in applications submitted for 2021 entry at music conservatoires. Data also shows that students from less disadvantaged backgrounds make up a disproportionate amount of arts schools applicants.

However, before the pandemic hit, what could have explained the 26% rise in the number of applications submitted for arts programmes from 2016 to 2020? 

A strong labour market might have been the culprit. In 2019, the UK government announced the lowest unemployment rate since 1974 – 3.8% in Q4 of that year. A misleading sense of security might have been instilled in aspiring graduates – right before an unforeseeable, once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis hit.

A halted economy also brought a halted job market with it. As job losses mounted nationwide, a fresh graduating class knew that there were likely to be no, or few, jobs by the time they finished studies.

But it wasn’t just graduates who were forced to change plans. The latest data released by UCAS in December, focused on music conservatoires admissions for 2021, showed that applications from the UK for music degrees declined 5% this year. 

This shows prospective students in the UK likely considered the economic ramifications of Covid-19 when selecting their undergraduate course, reversing a 4-year increase in the number of applications submitted. As music applications make up a large part of conservatoires applications (which include drama, dance, music, and film), it can be extrapolated that the same declining trend will hold true for other arts degrees’ applications.

But perhaps less applications to arts schools, especially from poorer students, is not something to decry. The Department of Education’s latest available data for 2017-18 graduates shows that arts graduates from prestigious institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama earn less than £8,000 per year one year after graduation – well below the more than £25,000 per year earned by business graduates from similarly prestigious institutions. 

One could be forgiven for choosing a higher, stable income over pursuing artistic dreams – especially as others’ jobs and livelihoods crumbled before our eyes in 2020. 

ARTISTS NEED TO THINK DIFFERENT – THIS YEAR MORE THAN EVER

The financial realities of the art world mean that aspiring artists should consider all available options before embarking on a traditional four year degree. Historically, children of monied families had a far easier time succeeding as artists, with families covering extra tuition and expenses. Now, with online courses, virtual internships, and social media, there are more, and cheaper, ways than ever to gain experience and showcase your work in this competitive industry. 

Ms. Wijaya is familiar with the dreams of students attending an arts school. “There will always be lots of talented musicians and artists, just waiting for their big break. But universities shouldn’t sell the dream that in order to be a successful artist, you need to attend this or that institution,” she said.

After all, creating great art has always been about innovation and pushing boundaries. Perhaps becoming a great artist doesn’t have to be any different. 

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