Popularity of liberal arts degrees varies internationally


Editor's Note: This column is the second in a series on higher education abroad from UT-Austin students who are currently studying or traveling outside the U.S. 

Trinidad and Tobago, two small islands in the Caribbean that make up one country, could be seen as fraternal twins. While Tobago fits the ideal, touristic description of the Caribbean lifestyle, with its tranquil beaches and easygoing ambience, Trinidad is a busy, oil-rich island. In October 2009, Trinidad was removed as a “developing nation” from a list created by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation.  

From the 45-minute drive from the airport to my family’s new home, I was shocked (and admittedly disappointed) at the amount of industry I saw along the way. However, from a local’s point of view, this hustle and bustle means job opportunities in the oil and energy sectors, which influences the focus of higher education within its borders.

While many aspects of higher education in Trinidad differ from those of the United States and Texas, the major difference is the most popular type of curriculum. While the United States greatly respects the liberal arts, Trinidad – along with many other nations – focuses on offering career-oriented studies for its university students.

It is important to understand that globally, having the luxury to study the liberal arts is made possible by individual and societal privilege. However, the unpopularity of the liberal arts in developed nations equivalent to the U.S. isn’t due to a lack of wealth, but the cultural perceptions of the liberal arts as valueless.  

In the United States, there are more than 500 colleges entirely dedicated to the liberal arts, 15 of which are within Texas. In contrast, majoring in the liberal arts is relatively uncommon outside the U.S.

A liberal arts student has the freedom to carve out his or her future, at a cost. Those majoring in the liberal arts take on opportunities in school such as unpaid internships, fellowships and pricey study abroad programs (which may be required in some cases). After receiving an undergraduate degree, many students who majored in the liberal arts must then take extra time to establish a career path (except those students who attend graduate school.) Despite its popularity, majoring in the liberal arts isn't entirely uncontroversial in the United States, as it is a road that does not set out a specific career path after college.

In Trinidad, the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine (UWI) is part of a larger public school system in the Caribbean known for its engineering programs which attracts students from all around the region.

Kristianna Aird, a recent graduate of UWI with a degree in accounting, illuminated the unpopularity of the liberal arts in Trinidad when she answered my question about the extracurricular involvement of students at the university without mentioning liberal arts students at all. 

“It depended on the degrees that people were doing, because the law, medicine and engineering students don't have much school spirit, but the business and management students tended to attend all the football games and be at all of the UWI parties,” Aird said.

Nici Syriac, a student in her third and final year at ROYTEC, a subsidiary business school of UWI, explained that the Trinidadian higher education system doesn’t exist without its drawbacks, such as underemployment.

With free tuition through the government-funded program Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) leading to many students graduating with education in a technical profession, graduates are being released into a job market with a high demand for - but low supply of - jobs.  

“Now there are many young people with degrees and no job because we are over-qualified with no experience,” Syriac said. “When we do want a job, we have to get low-class jobs in order to gain experience.”

In the United States, there is a tradition of having the freedom of exploring your education and career options and taking your time to figure out what you as an individual are best suited for.

With the exception of certain majors that are better defined, a liberal arts degree generally offers the flexibility to perform creatively and analytically at many jobs. Possessing a "blank slate" in the job market can be liberating for some, yet overwhelming for others. It is no surprise that the process requires time and money. In other nations, acquiring the education for a professional trade as fast and cheaply as possible is often your best option.

Manescu is an international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.