The liberal arts are a growing area of study in the UK. With over 25 establishments now offering degree programmes in this interdisciplinary area, there’s a vast array of courses to choose from.
This article takes a closer look at liberal arts degree courses in the UK and why you might want to consider studying one.
What are the liberal arts?
The liberal arts are one of the oldest areas of study. Centuries ago, scholars studied liberal arts subjects such as astronomy, rhetoric, grammar and geometry, with the belief that greater knowledge enabled them to be ‘active citizens’, allowing them to take part in public debate or to serve on juries. The term ‘art’ when referring to the liberal arts refers to a skill rather than the fine arts, and ‘liberal’ to the idea of freedom and citizenship.
Today, a liberal arts education encompasses a broader range of subjects drawn from the humanities, arts and social sciences, but still encourages the interdisciplinary-thinking and civic-mindedness that were regarded so highly amongst scholars of the very first universities.
Rather than preparing students for one specific profession or in one particular discipline, a liberal arts degree allows students to pick and choose from a wide range of subjects and modules, considering the relationships and differences between them. This gives students the space to think about where their passions really lie, and provides a foundation from which to continue on their career path.
A typical range of subjects from which topics can be chosen may include:
- English literature
- modern languages
- film studies
- theology and religion
- art history
- Arabic/Islamic studies
Some courses also offer the study of modules from subjects such as:
- natural sciences
- computer science
- ancient languages
Liberal arts degree courses usually provide a global perspective, inspiring students to consider what it means to be human and to think about how we are shaped by past and present social, cultural, economic, and political conditions.
What to expect if you choose a liberal arts degree in the UK
It’s worth exploring the different courses on offer if you’re keen to learn more because courses vary widely. In this section we look at some of the features which make a liberal arts degree course in the UK stand out.
Build your own degree course
One of the most distinguishing features of a liberal arts course is the flexibility it gives students. Each year of a three-year Bachelor’s degree course in the UK is made up of modules worth differing amounts of credits, to total 120 credits per year. While other degree courses may offer a limited choice over modules, a liberal arts course will usually have a wide variety to choose from.
Most universities require students to take one or two compulsory modules each year and choose a major (the subject you wish to focus on) in your first year. Your major is then studied to a greater depth (and an increasing number of credits) as you progress through the course. The learning structure is usually a combination of lectures, seminars and self-directed study, and assessed through coursework and written or practical exams.
Many universities offer a four-year undergraduate course with the third year spent either studying a language abroad or in a graduate-level work placement in the UK or abroad.
Here are a few examples of how course programmes differ between institution:
- The University of Exeter requires you to take a module in an ancient or modern language in your first year.
- The University of East Anglia offers modules chosen from a major arts and humanities pathway and an optional minor social science or science pathway.
- Several universities, including The University of Nottingham and The University of Manchester, offer a wide selection of modules from which you can create a ‘theme’ of study such as climate change or human rights.
- The University of Birmingham allows you to change or drop your major at any point and you can choose between a BA, BSc MArt, MSci or Natural Sciences qualification.
- UCL (University College London) and LIS (London Interdisciplinary School) award a BASc qualification.
- King’s College London offers an optional accredited internship module.
The University of Birmingham gives examples of real student pathways which are a fascinating insight into the versatility of this type of degree course.
Studying liberal arts at LIS
It’s worth mentioning that LIS, a relatively new institution, offers a slightly different learning experience; in 2020 it became the first university to be given degree awarding powers in the UK since 1965. Focusing solely on interdisciplinary teaching, LIS was founded on the premise that learning should begin with a ‘problem’.
Instead of choosing modules from a subject perspective, students tackle complex issues, investigating them from different angles. The course’s delivery structure also encourages a high level of practical experience and interaction between students, involving external stakeholders from local communities and businesses.
Liberal arts courses tend to be academically rigorous and, as with all courses, entry requirements vary between institutions. You may be asked for a grade in a specific subject if you intend to choose it as your major. For example, to major in economics, you may require A level maths; if you want to study English literature, history or music, you may also require an A level in that subject.
Why study a liberal arts degree course?
People often see the biggest appeal of studying a liberal arts degree as being the choice of subjects it offers but have you thought about how could you use a liberal arts degree to make an impact after you’ve graduated?
Demonstrate self-management and a growth mindset
We’ve talked about how liberal arts courses let you control the direction of your degree - few other courses allow for the ‘dipping of a toe’ into a completely new area. Someone who enjoys arts or humanities subjects can make new connections with the social sciences, or even maths or science.
How many other courses offer the possibility of studying crime in literature alongside the conditions of the working classes following the industrial revolution, while taking a module in criminology? You could learn Japanese or Arabic while studying Shakespeare in film and gaining international business skills; you could satisfy a passion for the classics while also investigating ways to solve plastic pollution.
Yes, you may be stepping outside your comfort zone knowing there’s limited risk but you will be able to show self-motivation, self-management, resilience and a desire to keep learning - all qualities that employers are keen to see.
A real-world focus
Many liberal arts degree courses pride themselves on challenging students to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for tackling real-world problems. So many global issues are interconnected, and gaining knowledge and skills from across a range of disciplines encourages innovative practices for approaching complex global challenges.
If you’re a creative thinker with an inquiring mind, and have a desire to make an impact on the future world, a liberal arts course can help strengthen your mental agility, and enable you to demonstrate adaptability and empathy – traits highly valued by employers.
Creating a foundation to future careers
Recent government research (Department for Education 2022) has identified four categories of skills that it predicts will become increasingly important in the labour market of the future. These include:
- active learning and teaching
- people skills (such as negotiation and resolving conflict)
- knowledge skills (such as critical and creative thinking, complex problem-solving, and decision-making)
- STEM knowledge (including medicine, psychology and counselling)
These skills are particularly sought after by disruptive companies where data analysis, complex problem-solving, collaborative thinking, and audience engagement are hugely important. And with AI (artificial intelligence) and other technologies on the rise, traits which make us distinctly human, such as creativity, curiosity and empathy, will also be in greater demand.
Are you suited to liberal arts study?
As you’ve probably gathered, the liberal arts can suit people with different types of interests and talents. But you might want to consider this path if you:
- have a strong interest in more than one subject and are keen to make the connections between them
- are fascinated about the world around you and the impact we, as citizens, can make
- enjoy debate and exploring different perspectives
- are self-motivated and an independent thinker
- enjoy research and critical thinking
What do liberal arts students go on to do?
Liberal arts graduates have a broad range of skills which prepares them for work in a variety of careers including with graduate employers such as the Big Four and the Civil Service. These are just a few of the career areas that liberal arts graduates go into:
- international development
- social services
- financial services
The Discover Uni website provides data on individual liberal arts degree courses in the UK including average earnings and the employment status of graduates on completion.
A liberal arts education can be a great launching pad for a future career. As we’ve learned, choosing this pathway doesn’t necessarily mean to the exclusion of STEM subjects and it opens up a wide range of opportunities including in emerging roles. It can provide an excellent grounding in skills that will be in high demand in the future, and alongside qualities such as a growth mindset, students will be well-equipped for moving between opportunities in a changing work landscape.
Understanding Current and Future Skills Needs. 2022. Department for Education.
Helen is an experienced information and careers professional working as a freelance writer and trainer. She writes about careers and the labour market for a wide range of audiences and organisations and aims to produce easily accessible, informative content that reflects the current jobs and careers landscape.