University Students prefer Arts over Science

By Michael Edmonds 23/05/2012

An article which appeared in this weekend’s Sunday Star Times and also on Stuff (here) describes how, despite a tight job market, twice as many students are studying creative arts as information technology, with more than a third of university students choosing to study society, cultural or creative arts subjects. This is compared to only 6% of students studying engineering.

While this is an interesting article, I think the author makes some key errors. Around New Zealand, the intake for engineering degrees is restricted. This is the same for other science related degrees – medicine, pharmacy, physiotherapy etc. I’m not sure if this is the same for many arts degrees, which are also much less expensive to run. If we want to increase the number of engineers the universities themselves will have to alter their course intakes.

Also, by apparently restricting itself to universities, these figures ignore the engineering graduates and other science based graduates coming out of some of our polytechnics.

With the “fastest-moving jobs in February of this year being in manufacturing, administration, education, energy industry and information technology” there is some concern from the business sector that are universities are not meeting New Zealand’s future need with “employers tend(ing) to cry out for degrees that cover science, technology, engineering and maths” (a hint at STEM perhaps?).

While I agree that New Zealand would certainly benefit from more science graduates, we also need to be careful that we recognise the valuable contributions of arts graduates.

Having said that, some of the comments in the article used to point out the value of an arts degree are a little weak. AUT vice-chancellor Derek McCormack points out the arts students learn “vital skills, including essay writing, analysis and communication skills.”

Do I need to point out that these skills area also gained from a well run science course? The degree at my own institution includes two communication related courses. Higher level science courses also include some essay writing (and how often in everyday life do most people actually have to write essays anyway).

So if New Zealand needs more graduates in science related subjects what needs to be done? Should we have incentives to study sciences? Do we need better career advice in schools that reflects the needs of the job market? Do we need to do more to keep school students interested in science so that they actually want a career in science?


0 Responses to “University Students prefer Arts over Science”

  • I think we’ve always had a large core of students go on to university who have had no strong inclination to study any subject in particular. They often end up doing Arts or Business degrees. The reasons aren’t hard to divine. Science degrees often expect a high level of numeracy. Therefore students need to have done well at maths subjects at NCEA2 and 3. Science degrees take up a lot more time. I was doing 3-4 times the contact hours as my Arts contemporaries. Labs eat up a lot of time. And not everyone is enamoured by the smell of pungent chemicals or bits of animals. So if you’re after a ‘degree’ sciences can be an unpleasant, arduous path & require skill-sets many students may lack.

    I would guess that people who do science have made that decision at high school, often at the formative NCEA1 stage. I wouldn’t expect many students to make the switch later.

    • hmmm, so if we could change the “default” position from arts/business to science progress might be made?

  • Maybe. But I think it depends on having excellent teachers of science at high school. And maybe we need to think about our science degrees. Maybe we should have a general science degree for students. One that doesn’t prescribe you must finish as a biologist or a physicist etc. I mean, I was pretty good at putting a fistula into the throat of a rat after 3 years of biology, but it’s never been a skill that’s been in high demand. Maybe we need to offer less specialisation and a braoder science base to undergraduates…

  • >Should we have incentives to study sciences?

    There are some incentives – for example pay tends to be somewhat higher for Sci/Eng grads than for Arts grads, right through one’s working life. It’s harder work to get these degrees, but there is a reward. Do kids think about this, or does it only mean something when you start to think about buying a house?

  • Possum,
    Good point, I was talking more about incentives at the time of studying. Not that I necessarily think it is a good idea, but I get the impression that a lot of young people don’t think far ahead enough to compare potential earnings. I think this can be seen in students choices of subjects at school where they may pick “easy” subjects instead of “useful” ones.

    Or maybe it is just a case of educating them about the long term benefits of science based careers.

  • I agree with Chthoniid regarding high school science although the ‘blame’ doesn’t necessarily lie with teachers. It may be that high school students’ perception of science is wrong. The way science in structured at school is very different from what science actually is (i.e. learning facts). In recent times there has been a shift to change and introduce inquiry-based-learning at school, but I think that it could be greatly improved and more strongly encouraged in science in particular.

    On the other hand, BAs will always be an attractive option for those who are unsure of ‘what they want to do’. This is artefactual of the way the world is now. Regardless of what people study at university, many never actually work in the field they studied. Also, changing career path is quite common now too. This contrasts with times of old where people studied something, got a job in that something and stayed at that job for years to come. Arts and business provide a platform for this.

  • Part of it may also be the perception of science as a ‘geek’ pursuit, so high-schoolers are less inclined to want to go in that direction. I think changing how society views intelligence will go a long way to increasing science and engineering intakes.
    Also, while we definitely need more engineers, try asking a recent engineering graduate how easy it is to get a job…

  • The most interesting science I have found for me has not been in textbooks. Stuff like Vortex energy, Plasma electrolysis, cold fusion, High voltage high frequency electrical properties and VLF waves. The hutchinson effect and Radiant electricity. Inert gas and plasma, excitation by means of pulsed electrical discharges.
    Science needs to be “sexy”, smart seen as cool. technology vs the cave man. Mysteries still waiting to be uncovered. In short it needs to be marketed to the young as a way of advancing our civilisation and our economic prospects as a country and also advancing their station in life. I also think that the books have to change (but I wont talk about that)

  • Electric kiwi, if only students demonstrated half your enthusiasm NZ would do well. However, by avoiding textbooks you seem to be mixing science with pseudoscience.
    I think most scientists are naturally curious and can see the benefits of science, the intrinsic joy that comes from exploring the unknown. However, the general population seems to have different motivators when it comes to science – I.e. it is mo about the “usefulness” of science.
    Perhaps we need to wow everyone with science early on, so even if they are interested in studying science, they appreciate and are fascinated by it