Very qualified for the future: history graduates’ employability and earnings

This is the third item in a series of blog posts that tie in with History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education.

On Monday 27 June 2022, commenting on the suspension and potential closure of the English literature degree at Sheffield Hallam University, the then minister for higher and further education Michelle Donelan said that although the government recognised that arts and humanities degree could lead to positive student outcomes, ‘courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer, who picks up a substantial portion of the cost’.

The narrative surrounding ‘value for money’ seems to be focussing on arts and humanities degrees. This is despite any substantial evidence that corroborates assumptions about the employability and earnings of humanities graduates. History UK’s Trends in History Provision in UK Higher Education report, released in June, presents data that challenge arguments that humanities, and in the specific case, history graduates are both less employable than their STEM peers and command lower graduate earnings. Using data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) (The Impact of Undergraduate Degrees on Lifetime Earnings, 2020) and The British Academy (Qualified for the Future. Quantifying Demand for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Skills,2020), the report positions the earnings of history graduates within the wider spectrum of arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) and STEM graduates’ earnings and outcomes; it concludes that history graduates enjoy lifetime earnings that are similar, and sometimes greater, than those of graduates of STEM subjects.

Any discussion about graduate employability, outcomes and earnings will inevitably examine the skills, knowledge and attributes acquired by university students. Two very important reports produced by the British Academy in the last five years have helped define and articulate the skills developed through the study of arts, humanities and social sciences subjects. They also explain their relevance in a rapidly changing world where the future shape of employment is difficult to predict. The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (2017) outlines the AHSS graduate’s skills and knowledge that make a significant contribution to our society and economy: communication and collaboration; research and analysis; attitudes and behaviours, particularly independence and adaptability. The ability to adapt and apply this wider set of skill allows AHSS graduates to enter a broad range of professions, from financial services to education, research, media and creative industries, legal services, heritage and hospitality, civil service, private sectors and the third sector. The second British Academy report, Qualified for the Future, offers a detailed analysis of arts, humanities and social sciences graduates’ employability and outcomes and explains the reasons behind their wide-ranging employment opportunities: most jobs in the UK require university qualifications and not a degree in a specific discipline, with only 14% of employers stating that a specific degree subject is part of their selection criteria. Together, these reports suggest that in our graduate job market, the extensive and flexible set of skills, knowledge and competences developed in arts, humanities and social sciences are highly valued by employers.

If wider assumptions and assertions about the employability gap between STEM and AHSS graduates are unfounded, so are notions of an earnings gap. Indeed, headline figures are often skewed by high earning in two specific STEM professions, medicine and dentistry. Drawing on analyses by the IFS, Trends in Historydispels the myth of the ‘low value’ degree that has been central to the narrative surrounding the closure of history departments.  When looking at median pre-tax earnings in 2016 arranged by subject, gender and for individuals aged 30, 35 and 40, it becomes apparent that a 40-year old male history graduate will earn more than a male graduate in bioscience; and that by the age of 40, a female history graduate will earn more than a female architect.  An examination of net lifetime earnings also reveals that a female history graduate’s expected lifetime earnings are higher than those of a woman who graduated in an allied to medicine subject; for male history graduates, expected lifetime earnings seem higher than those of their physics peers.

All these figures rely on historical data and are predicated on a future that looks remarkably like the past. But recent seismic events like the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid pandemic have shown us how fragile and unpredictable the eco system of our job market is and how this can affect the choices made by graduates. Our assumptions concerning the reasons underpinning students’ choices of university degrees also need to be recast: an interesting survey conducted by ComRes in 2019 on the value of universities shows that 56% of the students surveyed chose to go to university because they had an interest in the subject and 48% because they enjoyed studying and learning, compared with 50% who said that they did it to build a career and 34% to achieve higher earnings. Interestingly, independence (59%), confidence and research (both at 58%) were the top three skills students felt they had developed at university.

These are some of the key skills and attributes that AHSS degrees enable students to develop and apply throughout their working lives. In a fast changing and uncertain world that requires high levels of independent thinking and flexibility. History graduates do have the right skills to succeed and meet present and future challenges, and to bring ‘value’ to our economy and society.

Dr Manuela Williams, Senior Teaching Fellow in History at the University of Strathclyde, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher EducationRead the full report here.

The Fortunes of History in UK Higher Education

This is the second item in a series of blog posts that tie in with History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education.

As a humanities subject, history is operating in a challenging higher education environment. Whereas there is broad public consensus on the value of STEM courses, policy announcements on ‘low value degrees’ seem to be directed at the arts and humanities, even if they may not say so directly. However, assumptions about the respective merits of different disciplines or areas of study are not backed up by the available evidence. For example, in 2020, a report from the British Academy highlighted the skills and prospects of graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Moreover, with a specific focus on our own discipline, History UK’s recent report on Trends in History UK Higher Education collated helpful data on the employability of history graduates, which a separate blog post in this series will elaborate on.

It is not only the matter of graduate destinations that makes for a mixed picture: a similar observation applies to student recruitment. In the first blog post for our series, Elizabeth Tingle noted that data reveal a high level of concentration of history students at just 20 institutions. Collectively, these institutions have also increased their ‘market share’ since 2014/2015.

This development reflects a broader trend in student recruitment patterns: institutions within the Russell Group have been able to consolidate their position or expand their history provision, whereas at other universities, lower recruitment has been a subject of growing concern. The qualitative section of the History UK report showed how this development has created very different challenges and working realities for history staff. Whereas at some institutions, expansion has led to increased workloads, at other universities, there have been threats of course closures or management pressure to overhaul existing provision.

However, while the fortunes of history are varied, the picture is not universally gloomy and there are some aspects from the report that might tell a more positive story.

First of all, narratives of decline are unnecessary when we are dealing with only a modest reduction in history FTE numbers: a drop of 2% from 2014/2015 to 2019/2020. It is true that the relative share of history students (within the overall student population) has fallen, as student enrolments across all subjects have risen by 12% in the same period. Nonetheless, data suggest that student interest in history continues to be strong.

Second, history continues to be a standard component of the subject mix at multi-faculty institutions. During the 2019/2020 academic year, students were enrolled on history courses at 106 different institutions. This number does include some universities with very large cohorts: in 2019/2020, 7 institutions had an FTE history population of over 1,000 (Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter, Open University, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow). But what is equally striking is the number of institutions that are running smaller courses. If one looks at history enrolments in different brackets of hundreds (that is, 0–100 students, 100–200 students, 200–300 students, 300–400 students, etc.), the category with the largest number of institutions (25) is the 100–200 bracket, meaning that universities with an annual intake between around 30 and 70 students make up a nearly a quarter of institutions. In other words, small degree courses form a central part of the eco-system of history provision in the UK.

Third, there is less of a correlation between A-levels and university admissions than one might expect. In 2020 and 2021, the number of students taking history A-level was lower than in any of the previous years, in contrast to a growth of students taking A-levels as a whole. This is evidently a concerning matter – but the History UK report suggests that this development has not had a clear impact on university admissions. While nurturing student interest in history at school and college is evidently important, one should be wary of any predictions of how future recruitment may develop.

These observations do not diminish some of the wider concerns I noted at the outset of this blog post. After all, the recruitment patterns and enrolment numbers make for highly disparate experiences among both staff and students – which, in turn, raises challenges for solidarity within the sector. But as a forum for historians from different institutions, History UK is in a good position to facilitate our conversations and bolster our ties.

Daniel Laqua, Associate Professor of European History at Northumbria University, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher Education. Read the full report here.

History UK report: Trends in History in UK Higher Education (June 2022)

Today we release our latest report, Trends in History in UK Higher Education (2022). It investigates UK-wide trends in university enrolments and outcomes, with a focus on history undergraduates, and aims to provide historians with a detailed picture that can support advocacy for the subject.

The publication is timely. Right now, arts and humanities staff at Bishop Grosseteste, De Montford, Dundee, Huddersfield, Roehampton, Sheffield Hallam, and Wolverhampton are under threat of redundancies. There have already been programme closures and/or staff cuts in history at Sunderland, Kingston, London South Bank, and Goldsmiths, and no doubt new announcements at other universities with follow in coming months.

Trends in History provides historians with clear and accessible evidence to back up existing assumptions. This includes how history provision is highly concentrated in the largest institutions. Almost half of all history students (by full-time equivalent, FTE) are taught in the top quintile (by market share) of institutions that offer history. This share has grown gradually since the lifting of the student numbers cap in 2015/16 and seems set to increase.

The report also illustrates the growth and contraction of history enrolments across institutions over a five-year period. This reveals two key findings. First, that there is a strong positive correlation between the change in an institution’s history FTE numbers and the change in its overall FTE numbers. Second, that decisions to reduce staff numbers or close history programmes appear to be ideological. Roehampton proves instructive here. According to HESA data, between 2014/15 and 2019/20 history enrolments increased from 120 to 255 FTE. Yet as of May 2022, all history staff are at risk of redundancy as part of a university-wide restructure.

These findings are significant. They suggest that historians have limited power to prevent or reverse declines in recruitment to their department – and thus top-down threats – independent of the wider collective of their colleagues. A key element to fighting off threats may therefore lie in building cross-disciplinary (or, in resourcing terms, cross-departmental) relationships of collaboration and solidarity.

In addition to analysis of enrolments data, the report synthesises evidence on ‘employability’ and post-degree incomes. The notion that history (and arts and humanities subjects more generally) does not have ‘value’ in this way, whilst STEM subjects do, is shown to be wholly and demonstrably false. Analysis of the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data set, for example, suggests that women history graduates can expect lifetime earnings very similar to that of computing graduates and, for men, to physics graduates.

The report ends with reflections from historians from a small cross-section of institutions. While a small sample means we must be wary of generalising, these suggest patterns that align with the quantitative data analysed in the report. This includes the highly concentrated nature of history provision, with effects being felt most keenly in terms of workload. It also includes the ways that employability and the skills agenda may, in time, reinforce perceived differences between more prestigious and less prestigious institutions, as seen in econometric models of lifetime earnings. While employability is increasingly important across the sector, it is in post-92s that we have seen the most sustained and innovative efforts to embed employability as integral parts of curricula.

Overall, the report raises important questions about the effects of the increasingly binary system of higher education, in which there are ‘over-performing’ and ‘under-performing’ institutions for the arts and humanities. This includes threats to unfunded research time in pre-92 non-Russell Group universities (as discussed in this recent History UK blog post), as well as the implications of discourses around ‘employability’. Staff in institutions under threat of cuts and contractions are already contending with demands to refocus programmes on ‘vocational’ history and the ‘applied humanities’, and the implications of this for staff and students, or for the discipline, have yet to be realised.

Most importantly, Trends in History reinforces the need for sector-wide discussions on history provision, not only in terms of enrolments and outcomes, but of workloads and curricula. What do sustainable history programmes look like, and how might these best meet the needs not only of future students, but of staff and wider communities? And how might historians build strategic alliances across the university (including within university governance) to ensure that the solidarity is there when plans to cut or restructure are raised.

We need to move beyond issuing statements and holding discussions. Trends in History provides a key step in building an evidence base to support action.

Over the next few weeks, we will post a series of blog posts discussing key themes and issues arising from the report. If you would like to contribute a blog post (perhaps providing a view from your institution) please get in touch with us via historyuk2020@gmail.com.

In the meantime, you can read the full report here.

The executive summary is available here.

Inclusive Pedagogies during the Pandemic: Can Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy Keep Up?

Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh


ALL ACADEMICS who are committed teachers understand the importance of reflecting, openly and critically, on our own practice. But during the first months of the pandemic, we were so focussed on making the quick shift to digital teaching that it was impossible to find the “safe space” to reflect on what we were doing. While we worried about our students’ unequal access to technology and the lack of evidence to ensure our online assessments were fair, we also witnessed the extent of unequal suffering during lockdown. The Albert Kennedy Trust had advised our LGBT+ students to “press pause on coming out” because escalating cases of domestic violence toward young queer people showed that lockdown at home “was at best a difficulty and at worst actively dangerous.”[1] The novel coronavirus frightened us all but it imperilled an unequal proportion of colleagues and students from Black and South Asian backgrounds, irrespective of socioeconomic context.[2] How could our sprint to support our students, and each other, create the scope for reflective practice on teaching during that awful time?

In May 2020, History UK launched its research-based Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, “to provide emergency assistance to historians, … as they transition to online teaching in response to Covid-19 restrictions.” Its website tallied 4500 hits within 12 weeks, suggesting its popularity beyond historians.[3] By “emergency,” the authors meant “pedagogical emergency”—but we were facing a cluster of crises throughout that spring and summer. When governments announced the cancellation of final-year exams, and that universities would offer places to school leavers on their “calculated” or “predicted” outcomes, historians anticipated a reopening of the racial disadvantage gap that marked our discipline. For many years “predicted grades” had been lower than “achieved grades” among even the highest-achieving pupils from South Asian and Black ethnic groups.[4] So in line with the commitments we made in our Report on Race, Ethnicity, and Equality in UK History (2018), the Royal Historical Society hosted a virtual workshop in June, to understand the impact of the Covid crisis on minority-ethnic admissions to higher education.

Peter D’Sena, RHS Vice President, observed at the time that “we are not facing a crisis, but rather crises born of racial injustice compounded by a health crisis.” Epidemiologists had explained for years that social and economic inequalities, created and sustained by racism, led to health inequality among minoritised-ethnic communities across Britain.[5] Indeed, by midsummer, patterns of pandemic-related illness highlighted these racial disparities, even when researchers accounted for geographical and socioeconomic factors.[6] In one East London hospital, Black patients were 80% and Asian patients 54% more likely to require invasive mechanical ventilation than white patients.[7] To think about pandemic pedagogy separately from this humanitarian catastrophe in 2020 was as difficult as teaching in a surgical mask in 2021 while trying not to worry about the seats left empty by the variable number of self-isolating students.

When the tough academic year 2020/21 ended, History UK undertook a study of inclusive pedagogy among History departments across the four nations. Led by Dr Sarah Holland, Education Officer of HUK and Dr Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh, History UK are undertaking a series of meetings with focus groups comprising directors of EDI and directors of teaching from 21 HEIs. Having read the RHS report on race, and considered the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, in addition to a series of questions, we held our initial meetings with representatives of five institutions associated with the East Midlands Centre for History Teaching and Learning. These provided an opportunity for historians to reflect openly on our practice as educators, in the company of similarly exhausted yet eagerly communicative colleagues who were committed to fairness in higher education.

These consultations consider the key priorities and challenges for History as a subject for inclusive teaching. What work had historians undertaken before the pandemic? Have efforts to mitigate the damage of Covid-19 shifted strategies to extend equality, diversity, and inclusion across historical curricula? Although our departments range in size, demographics, recruitment strategies, and areas of emphasis, colleagues suggest that before the pandemic hit, action on inclusiveness tended to originate among students and staff. But with so many new guidelines coming down from senior administration during the pandemic, the directional flow towards ensuring equality has changed. From 1999/2000, HEFCE (now the Office for Students or OFS) has funded Widening Participation (WP) programmes to help universities recruit and retain students from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas or backgrounds; it also supports access for students with visible or invisible disabilities. Consequently, senior university administrators have pointed to their quantifiable success in WP to illustrate that their campuses are inclusive places for historically disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the shift to digital teaching during the pandemic may have enabled universities to raise their ambitions on access. We have noticed that the phrase “reducing attainment gaps” (which implies a deficit in student performance) has become “eliminating awarding gaps” (implying problems with teaching and assessment). This bolder ambition reflects the apparent ability of all students to engage with digital learning regardless of where or who they are. Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of disability, which has led universities to showcase online teaching that will reach disabled students without discriminating among or against them.

We see two problems here. The first is that the criteria that the Office for Students and universities have used to define WP originate in the Dearing and Kennedy reports of 1997. By retaining these criteria, universities pre-empt an intersectional understanding of disadvantage that students and their tutors now see more clearly. As we noted earlier, members of minoritised ethnic communities experience life-threatening disadvantage even when we factor for economic and geographical context. But WP funding to retain disadvantaged students has been allocated according to a definition of “at-risk” that refers only to students’ age and entry qualifications.[8] Colleagues we met are calling for an intersectional analysis of recruitment data and strategies, to reflect the broader thinking on vulnerability, equality, and access.

Second, students who can access the internet may not be able to engage with digital content on an equal footing. Universities have funded digital versions of more if not all the content that students need for their courses, and this is an excellent step forward. But even if all students can access the required technology, not all will have a quiet space in which to read, think, and write, free of caring responsibilities. Some students report that their homes become unsafe when they access course content on topics that address sexuality, race, and religion. Attempts to decolonise the historical curriculum take on new meaning when teaching and learning moves online. Whilst some colleagues are painfully aware of the challenges students might face engaging with such material at home, the move online assumed an exclusive learning environment. When students find such matters ignored by celebrations of digital teaching strategies, they may assume that their university will not offer flexibility or support, or that their university cannot recognise why supportive community matters. Whatever the reality, these perceptions are incredibly important and can have a profound impact on the lives of students. Colleagues are pleased by the eagerness of universities to narrow or eradicate disadvantage gaps and to recognise those disabilities that have prevented students to attend classes in person. But this enthusiasm may side-line those students whose experience was never anticipated by major inclusion strategies at institutional level.

Meleisa Ono-George’s critique of the RHS Report on Race, Ethnicity, and Equality in UK History argued that attending to achievement disparities must extend to “a decolonised, anti-racist and engaged classroom” in which students will be “encouraged to be active participants in the classroom community.”[9] Now, as the pandemic continues, students tell us that “classroom community” means something different than it did before we switched to masks, monitors, and deepening experiences of financial precarity. The thoughtful conversations we had about creating “safer spaces” and “fostering community” for our students and for each other, before March 2020, have changed. We now must account for the intellectual, emotional, and economic consequences of infection, associated disability, chronic illnesses, and death among our Black, South Asian, and less affluent students and their families. The Sutton Trust has found that during the past year, 30% of students were less able to afford their studies, and 34% had lost a job, worked reduced hours, or not been paid by their employer.[10] For the first time in a decade, the awarding gap has stopped closing.[11] Many of these students lack the “wider pastoral preparedness” that would build emotional and intellectual resilience.[12] How can universities generate a sense of belonging for these students in the context of such far-reaching yet ultimately personal shifts? These are individual as well as broader crises, and to address them in ways that meet these clear but shifting conditions, senior administrators and teaching staff must work together to understand our students intersectionally. The pandemic offers opportunities to learn, and this will entail thinking about the pedagogical implications of equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies that were created at a different time, to meet different challenges.

 

References

[1] How Coronavirus Has Affected the LGBT+ Community, Bardardo’s, 2020.

[2] Public Health England, Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, 2020.

[3] A. Merrydew, “The History UK Pandemic Initiative,” CUCD Bulletin, 49 (2020).

[4] G. Wyness, The Rules of the Game, (London: Sutton Trust, 2017). R. Murphy and G. Wyuness, “Minority Report: The Impact of Predicted Grades on University Admissions of Disadvantaged Groups, (London: UCL, 2020).

[5] J. Nazroo, “The Structuring of Ethnic Inequalities in Health: Economic Position, Racial Discrimination, and Racism,” American Journal of Public Health, 93 (February 2003): 277-84.

[6] Public Health England, Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, 2020.

[7] Y. Wan and V. Apea, “‘49% More Likely to Die’ – Racial Inequalities of COVID-19 Laid Bare in Study of East London Hospitals,” The Conversation, (27 January 2021).

[8] L. Bowes, et al. The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation, Edge Hill University, 2013.

[9] M. Ono-George, “Beyond Diversity: Anti-Racist Pedagogy in British History Departments,” Women’s History Review, 28 (2019): 500-7.

[10] R. Montacute and E. Holt-White, Covid-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief, no. 2, Sutton Trust, May 2020.

[11] J. Hutchinson et al, Education in England: Annual Report 2020, (Educational Policy Institute); for Scotland, see P. Scott, The Impact of Covid-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education, (Commissioner for Fair Access, Scottish Government, 2020).

[12] See D. Woolley and A. Shukla, “A Call to Action on Widening Participation in the Era of Covid-19,” Higher Eduation Policy Institution, 8 June 2020. For the foundational scholarship on resilience, see C. Dweck et al, Academic Tenacity, (Seattle: Gates Foundation, 2014).

Call for papers: Assessment in History – Reassessing the purpose and future of assessment in the study of history

Assessment in History – Reassessing the purpose and future of assessment in the study of history

LOCATION: Online

DATE: 23 May 2022 (pending UCU strike dates)

OUTLINE: This event, organised by History UK, is designed to reassess the purpose and future of assessment in history. Assessment is a fundamental part of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, but what role does (and should) assessment play in the study of history in Higher Education? And how does this connect with history assessment in secondary schools and the skills required by a range of employers and careers? This event will be an opportunity to address these questions. Case studies will be used to explore how and why different types of assessment are being used in history degrees. Alongside more traditional forms of assessment such as essays and exams, more innovative approaches to assessment are emerging which present opportunities and challenges.

Contributions on any aspect of assessment in the history curriculum are invited. We would particularly encourage participants to think about:

  • The purpose and future of assessment in history UG and PG degrees
  • Assessment and inclusivity
  • Digital assessment
  • Creative assessment
  • Practice-based assessment
  • Assessment for Learning
  • Feedback/Feed-Forward
  • History assessment in secondary schools
  • Assessment and Employability
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on assessment

We welcome proposals for panels or papers that address the theme of assessment in history degrees. Proposals can take the form of individual papers (10 mins), panels (three to four papers on a related theme) or interactive workshops (30 mins). Participants will be invited to contribute to a publication on this theme.

To submit your proposal, please send a short abstract (upto 200 words in the case of an individua paper, upto 500 for a panel) to Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk) by 12th April 2022.