Does Romania really have too many theater and film graduates? | The State of Cinema

15 September, 2022

This month we’re taking a little detour from the happenings in global and Romanian cinema to do a little fact-checking on a claim that has made tempers soar in Romanian cinema circles: the assertion that Romanian theatre and film college programs are creating hundreds of unemployed youths every year. 

Towards the end of August, shortly before college enrollment season was due to start, an article published on “Cultura la dubă” (Culture in the Van, a cheeky reference to the arrest of two cultural journalists during the protests of January 2012), practically the only Romanian outlet which reports on hard news in the area of culture, caused a brief but intense scandal in online film and theatre circles, mainly because of its title: “Theatre and Film Colleges are producing hundreds of unemployed [people] every year. «It’s unfair to students that the admission rate is higher than the market demand»”. As such, a headline that puts forward quite a harsh claim, presenting it as if it were factual – but which, upon briefly reading the article, that is, a collective interview with five students who are enrolled in, or have recently graduated from the National University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” (UNATC), conducted by e-mail questionnaire by reporter Theodor Macovei (as it emerged from the subsequent position of one of the five, director Andrei Olănescu), it transpires that the statement is a quote taken out of context (according to the same young graduate) from one of the interviews.

I will not review the numerous negative reactions to the article – the most important of which took place of the Facebook pages of director and screenwriting professor Iulia Rugină, and writer/university professor Ștefan Baghiu – but I will try, with the use of journalistic methods, to face-check the claim it made to the best of my abilities, based on the public figures and statistics that are available online and published by the Romanian state. Since we are talking about journalism (of which I am a graduate – something I mention whenever necessary), first, a very brief criticism of the errors in journalistic procedure and conduct in the article:

  1. improper technique (a group interview, conducted online and in writing, with five students about their study experience that give varying responses, cannot be substituted for data obtained from research)
  2. improper framing (extracting a sub-theme from the text and using it as its main key of presentation, to the degree that it creates a fracture between the body of the article and its title), and
  3. improper contextual correlations and omissions, with the purpose of making the subject – UNATC and, ad extenso, Romanian theatre and film schools – in a negative light (the comparison with the number of students at a single foreign theatre academy, chosen strictly on the basis of reputation and its similar field of activity, the comparison of per-capital allocation of public funds to Romanian med schools, meanwhile deleted, the usage of an out-of-date figure for tuition fees, since amended, omitting to mention the ratio of students who do not pay tuition to those that do, etc.).

Last, but not least, there is also an agenda-setting issue at hand: given the – absolutely necessary, and I stress this – series of articles (mostly interviews) published by CLD about the abusive institutional culture which permeates UNATC, this journalistically flawed article not only damages their otherwise good reputation, but it also casts a shadow over the intentions of their whole effort to reveal and openly criticize the toxic behaviors in the university.

So, let’s take a look at the public data from the Ministries of Education and Labour alongside those collected by the National Institute of Statistics (INS), along with some data complied by Eurostat – I lay no claim to being a statistician or a sociologist, but, as a cultural journalist, this data is helpful when it comes to grasping the bigger picture.


What do the statistics say about students, the unemployed, and the labor market in the cultural industry?

Ilustrație de Irina Ionescu.
Illustration by Irina Iliescu.

Let’s start with the public figures from the Ministry of Education, which publishes annual records of the number of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral students enrolled at Romanian universities. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll only take the first two categories into account, mainly since doctoral students are most often assimilated within universities as researchers, associate staff, substitute teachers, etc.) A few words about the limitations of the data: the most recent reference interval available is the 2020-2021 academic year, so the snapshot that this date offers is slightly out-of-date, given the effects of the pandemic on higher education in Romania, summarised in an article published on the EduPedu platform in March 2022 – on the one hand, an increase in the number of students, on the other, a decrease in interest towards dropping out.

From the report mentioned above, we also learn that the dropout rate calculated in 2015-2016, the last period in which it was exhaustively studied, is lower in the field of arts colleges, i.e. between 23-29% below the national average of 43.8%, with 28.6% in cinema and 23.4% in theatre.

Another limitation is that the Ministry of Education unites, under the umbrella-term of “arts”, study programs from 28 various state and private universities (out of a total of 672 majors included), which include both cinema and theatre, as well as music and fine arts (note that architecture and philology are counted separately) – thus it is difficult to use them to calculate the exact number of cinema/theater students on their basis, as they are not listed separately when several arts progams are offered by the same university (e.g. Babeș-Bolyai University, with its College of Theatre and Television, which also offers, for example, an art history program at the College of History and Philosophy). I won’t compare the art student figures with other fields of study, but I will mention that there are at least 7 professional breakdowns in the ministry’s data for engineering alone.

But let’s get to the figures. In total, 401 902 students were enrolled in 2020/2021 undergraduate studies in Romania, of which 8 511 (or 2.12%) were enrolled in university courses in the “arts” field; as for master’s students, out of 108 964 registered at a national level, 2 781 (or 2.55%) were studying in this specialization. Only one institution out of the 28 declared part-time students, the “Gh. Dima” National Academy of Music in Cluj-Napoca, the rest only had full-time students.

By ranking the data according to the number of students, one may observe that, at the undergraduate level, UNATC “I.L. Caragiale” ranks 8th at the national level in terms of the number of students enrolled, with 534 students, i.e. 6.27% of the total number of students in the field of “arts.” ((The top 3 featues the “George Enescu” University of Arts in Iasi – 1 043, UNARTE Bucharest – 985, UAD Cluj – 801. Among private schools, Hyperion University has the highest number of students – 156.) In terms of Master’s studies, UNATC was in 4th place nationally, after UNARTE, “Enescu” University, and the West University of Timișoara, with 255 Master’s students (i.e. 9.16% of the total).

The 2020 data from the National Institute of Statistics, on the other hand, helps us understand a little more about the dynamics and complexities of the labor market – from its monumental annual report, “Labour Force in Romania: Employment and Unemployment”. The first, and most important figure: “In 2020, the active population was 8 973 thousand people, of which 8 521 were thousand employed and 452 thousand unemployed”, with an employment rate of 65.6% of the population of legal working age (15-64 years), of which were 74.4% men and 56.5% women, slightly higher in urban than in rural areas.

In terms of employment, agriculture is still the leading field of work in Romania, accounting for 20% of the active population – and from a table which charts the distribution of workers employed in fields other than the agricultural one, we find that only 1.1% of the total employed population worked in “Entertainment, cultural and recreational activities”, corresponding to 1.0% of men and 1.1% of women. (This is the second lowest figure in the table – the lowest is in real estate transactions, with 0.3%. The highest one belongs to the manufacturing industry, at 22.7%.) This means that the actual sector is tiny compared to the absolute figures – rounding out at about 67,440 people (out of a total of 6,774,000 not employed in agriculture) working in the cultural industry, a figure that is probably higher in reality. Compared to the European average, the number is quite sobering – less than 1% of Romanian workers are employed in culture, while the European average is 3,8% of the total workforce.

But the figures also confirm the reality that many young people feel about the labor market and the difficulty of finding a job: only 24.6% of young people aged 15-24 were employed, and the unemployment rate among them was 17.3% (the difference between the two numbers having to do with those who are considered active by being enrolled in education) – and this includes recent university graduates if they are amongst those started higher education at the age of 19 (graduating at 21 and 23 respectively, thus, strictly referring to those who do not drop out and complete their studies as quickly as possible). However, we also find that “The highest level of employment rate for people of working age was among higher education graduates (88.8%). As the level of education decreases, so does the employment rate.”

As for the overall unemployment rate, it was 5% in 2020, and the authors of the study claim that ”unemployment affected graduates of middle and lower education more (…) than those with higher education (2.2%)”. At the same time, “the majority of people with higher studies lived in urban areas (85.3%) and were women (52.6%)”, and they constitute 18.7% of the country’s total population, with 83% of all young people aged 20-24 having at least had a secondary education. Of the total numer unemployed, young people constituted a “significant share”, according to the study: 23.3% are aged 15-24 and 27.4% are aged 25-34; 27.9 of the total number of unemployed in rural areas were young people, while in urban areas the figure drops to 18.3%. In short: “The percentage of young unemployed among the total number of young people was 5.2%.” (Parenthetically, another sad conclusion from the study is that although women make up the majority of college graduates, their unemployment rate – 13% of the total – was double that of men – 6.7%.)

So, statistically speaking, only about 11.2% of people with college degrees are unoccupied (the total figure being 18 percentage points above the national average of 70% for 20-64 year-olds). Although we may argue that the statistic does not take into account the field of employment, it nevertheless shows that graduates of all kinds, including those from UNATC, are much less likely to be unemployed/unoccupied than other social segments – although we cannot use the available data to prove whether the average number of unemployed Theater/Film gradues is higher or lower than the 2,2% of the unemployment how have a higher education degree, the fact that most of them live in urban areas (where, incidentally, they attend the colleges they are enrolled in) also favors their integration into the labor market in one form or another, be it as employees or freelancers (a field in which, despite practicing their trades, they will likely be part of the precariat).


Another INS statistic – this time, on job vacancies during 2021 – indicates that of the total number of vacancies, 42,700, “the highest average annual vacancy rates were in public administration (2.02%), in entertaining, cultural and recreational activities (1.72%), and in health and social work (1.61%)”, thus indicating a paradoxical reality, given how devastating the pandemic has been for industry: the cultural sector had the second largest rate of job vacancy, so we could conclude that there is some demand for labor in the sector, even if the absolute figures are not very high (somewhere around approx. 730 vacancies in 2021). The same report also indicates an increase of 0.40 percentage points (compared to 2020) in the sector’s average annual vacancy rate. A final statistic that proves just how aberrant this state of affairs is? According to the Ministry of Culture, the cultural sector’s contribution to Romania’s GDP has risen by a staggering 71% in the last 4 years.

Some considerations and conclusions

Ilustrație de Irina Ionescu.
Illustration by Irina Iliescu.

To briefly summarize the main points: the percentage of arts graduates in Romania (2.12%) is higher than the percentage of workers formally employed in the Romanian cultural industries (1% of workers employed in fields other than agriculture), but in a wider context, the industry is massively undersized compared to the EU average (3.8%); compared to the latter figure, even the number of graduates is suboptimal. Their age group has the highest unemployment rate (17.3%), but their level of education and the fact that they reside in urban areas makes them more likely to avoid unemployment / to find employment later on (in one field or another, whether it is the artistic/cultural one or not).

Even if the available figures do not allow us to prove the exact number of unemployed people with higher education in the artistic field, or to correlate said number with the various national averages related to unemployment, a key systemic problem emerges from the data: the fact that the Romanian cultural sector, seen as a branch of employment, is extremely small; therefore, the chances of a graduate working in this field are much lower. But does this mean that we should cut college places?

No, it doesn’t. It means that we should do much more political lobbying for the effective/efficient funding of culture by the Romanian state in both the public and independent/private spheres, as Romania is below the European average in terms of GDP allocation to culture, recreation and religion. (But hey, surprise, we’re way over the European average in “n.e.c” expenditure in the field – i.e., money spent on administration, see the definition on page 222.) So the problem in itself is not unemployment, because statistics show that most graduates do end up being employed in one place or another, but rather, it’s that of employment opportunities in their respective field of studies, which, combined with the alarmingly high unemployment figures for young people (as over 5% of all young people are unemployed) point to another systemic crisis in Romania (linked to state economic planning and more). All this leads to hasty conclusions such as those published by Cultura la dubă, but also to these feelings (which, in their deepest essence, are anti-solidarity and counterintuitive to their own group interests) fomenting among students, which are desperate at the thought of having to reprofile themselves.

Again, the solution is to rethink the Romanian economy and the state’s financial allocations to the cultural field (but not just culture), not to limit the educational opportunities of young people, an idea which, at its core, borders on the unconstitutional. Proposals such as those put forward in the article published by Cultura la dubă are only conducive within a profoundly neoliberal logic of the education (and cultural) system, in which the act of education must necessarily be translated into productive economic activity and obligatory employment in the field – in contrast to a humanist (if you will) understanding of education, in which its education contributes to the (multilateral) formation of the individual beyond capital, therefore, by seeing the individual as more than a mere participant in the economy/employee. If we separate the concept of education from subsequent profit, as well as from the idea that any investment by the state (Romanian or otherwise) must necessarily produce economic added value, instead of so-called “positive externalities” (i.e. secondary effects that are beneficial to society), the idea of limiting the number of students seems even more absurd.

And there is also a sort of paradox: between the lines of the article, one can read a certain nostalgia for the style of the planned economy of communist Romania, when jobs were much more “secure” than in the current configuration of the free market. While it is natural that acting graduates will aspire to a (stable) job in a state theatre, it must be said that it is a very limited and small market; the sub-financing of culture and, therefore, the precariousness of the independent sector (dependent on state funding) discourages them from having their own cultural (entrepreneurial) initiatives. (Another sad fact we don’t discuss nearly as enough as we should: one of the massive employers of young actors is MediaPro’s miserable faux reality-TV show, Life Lessons. Yes, it’s that bad.)

At the same time, reducing the number of students (and thus the funding of the higher educational system, which implies austerity measures, ahem, “optimization and efficiency”) is a brutally simplistic solution to a much larger systemic problem of Romanian culture: that of chronic underfunding. In this logic, it is only natural that the proposal is not to massively increase the number of state jobs in the field of culture and to increase the transparency of the hiring system (and, why not, to also clean the system of all sorts of people who were hired due to political ties and nepotism), but to put forward a form of adapting to a deeply flawed system, which practically validates the current status quo. It’s a strange point of view considering the publication’s other positions – such as their recent piece on National Cinema Day, which squarely places the blame for the disastrous state of the country’s cinemas on the public authorities. It’s all the stranger given that the article’s stance is clearly ideological, elevating the abstract concept of “market demand” (seen as a divine law in neoliberal discourses) above everything else. Especially since the author himself admits that he cannot quantify said demand, but he uses an approximation of it to draw a number of inconsequential conclusions. How does he even jump from pointing out the absence of statistics “from fields such as theatre and cinema” and the fact that “universities, the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Labour do not have a database that shows how many of the graduates of the schools in question end up working in the field” to the immediately following sentence: “In other words, the colleges are, to some extent, disconnected from the labor market. It is, however, a known fact – that colleges take in far more students than the market demands”?

And even so, the country’s film schools do not produce the specialists that are needed across all areas of activity in the country – for example, there are no college programs in the country dedicated to film archival and restoration (and I will preemptively point out that simple library studies are not enough in this field), leading to two very particular situations in Romania: on the one hand, a mostly aged workforce which is on the verge of retirement at the National Film Archive, along with an import of specialized workers from abroad to companies such as Cinelabs Romania, in the absence of local graduates able to work with analog and digital film restoration, or who know how to process and manipulate film stock/reels.

In short, I find that such reductive articles – in terms of method, argumentation, and conclusions – are not at all conducive when it comes to discussing the larger systemic problems of vocational education in Romania and its cultural industry/milieu. Manufacturing artificial solutions and crises (“hundreds of unemployed”) on the basis of journalistic approaches and methods that are absolutely questionable in relation to their desired outcome (and the idea of seeking a certain outcome, anyway, is contrary to the ethos of journalism, which begs one to seek out and discover, not to achieve a pre-ordained result) only distracts our attention from the real problems of the cultural sector, while imposing an invisibly-ideological thought pattern upon said problems which not only doesn’t change anything for the better, it also normalizes, even exaggerates these extant crises. It would be much more productive (sic!) for these discussions to be had on the basis of their own gravity (and CLD has often done so), without us having to waste any time dismantling erroneous or incomplete statements.

Main image: illustration by Irina Iliescu.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.