For some fields student satisfaction and salary prospects are down, but it’s not always the case
The arts and humanities include some of the subjects that have been worst hit by the introduction of £9,000 fees.
Language degrees, in particular, still struggle to recruit students, with European languages down by 13 per cent since 2012 and non-European languages down by 7 per cent at a time when overall enrolments have been rising. The decline reflects a fall in the numbers studying languages at A level and concerns about the graduate labour market. No language is in the top 25 subjects for employment or graduate salaries, although neither are they at the bottom, as some arts subjects are.
Not all arts subjects are in difficulties, however. Art and design, despite a slight dip this year, has been on a rising curve since higher fees were introduced, and history is recruiting record numbers of undergraduates. This is welcome news for historians, who have highlighted the subject’s analytical skills.
Students appear to be more reluctant to take joint-honours degrees involving arts subjects, due to perceptions that these involve more work and undergraduates may fall between two departments. Combinations with other arts subjects, sciences or social sciences are all down in 2016, as they were in the two previous years.
The arts and humanities still include some of the most popular subjects among applicants. English, for example, had more than 50,000 applications in 2015, and law has taken more students every year since 2012 and topped 23,000 this summer. This is despite the fact that English is outside the top 50 for employment and graduate salaries, and even law is not in the top 25.
Art and design is always one of the leading choices for prospective students. There were 97,500 applications for design courses in 2015 — still less than before the fees went up, but more than five for every place. Demand held steady in fine art, with more than 25,000 applications and close to 5,000 acceptances.
The spread of institutions demonstrating excellence in particular subjects is wider in the arts and humanities than in any of the other subject groups. In some areas specialist universities or colleges challenge the established hierarchy, while the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge is less pronounced generally than it is in science and technology or the social sciences.
The art and design table, for example, is headed for the first time by Newcastle, one of the few Russell Group universities with a degree in fine art. Cambridge, which tops nearly half the subject tables, does not teach art or design, but Oxford is third behind University College London.
Drama, one of the subjects that is not offered by either of the ancient universities, has Lancaster as the leader this year, while Durham tops the music table and Birmingham leads in American Studies. Even where Oxford and Cambridge are both in the table, as in English, their leadership is no longer automatic. St Andrews, Durham and UCL are the top three in this year’s English ranking.
Nevertheless, Cambridge tops the tables for geography, history and law, as well as theology and religious studies, and a string of languages and classics. Oxford’s only top place in the arts is in linguistics, but it is second in a number of subjects.
Outside the top few places, less familiar names soon appear. Winchester is in the top 20 for geography and environmental science, for example; Edinburgh Napier is only just outside the top ten for drama, dance and cinematics; and Portsmouth is in the top six for American Studies.
The tables for both drama and art and design contain a number of institutions that are too specialist to appear in our main table. Falmouth University is the leading art school, for example, and shares 15th place in the subject overall, while the Central School of Speech and Drama is 14th in the drama table.
The decline in applications in some areas of the arts and humanities could be good news for applicants because the competition for places becomes less intense. However, that depends on the response of individual universities, some of which have, for example, closed language courses to focus on more popular areas.
The tables give a good guide to student satisfaction and early career prospects in particular subjects, rather than the university as a whole, although employment destinations are surveyed only six months after graduation and the figures date from the end of 2014.