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.

Student numbers in history in UK higher education: recent trends

History UK’s report Trends in History in UK Higher Education released last week, presents a sombre picture for historians. Despite overall growth in student numbers in UK universities, the number of history undergraduates has fallen by 17 per cent between 2014/15 and 2019/20, and the number of history postgraduates fell 16 per cent. While not all nations are equally affected – Scotland has fared better than England, Wales, and Northern Ireland – the general direction is downwards.

Behind this trend, two issues stand out. The first is the concentration of history students in a relatively small number of institutions. Almost half of all history students (by FTE) are taught in the top 20 per cent (by market share) of institutions that offer history (Figure 1). As there are just over 100 universities offering history, this top quintile contains 20 institutions. Their share of history FTEs has grown from 44 per cent to 47 per cent between 2014/15 and 2019/20. The second quintile of institutions captures more than a quarter of history FTEs. The result is that two-fifths of universities teach three-quarters of history FTEs in the UK.

Figure 1: History FTE enrolments, 2014/15–2019/20, by quintiles.

Source: Reproduced from Figure 3, Trends in History in UK Higher Education, p. 14. In this chart universities are ranked in order of number of history FTEs, for each year, and then grouped by quintile.

It is also evident that history departments in Russell Group universities have fared better than those in post-92 or non-Russell Group pre-92 institutions.

Figure 2. History enrolments (FTEs), 2014/15 vis-à-vis 2019/20 (by status).

Source: Reproduced from Figure 4, Trends in History in UK Higher Education, p. 15. This figure shows the ‘stability’ of institutions’ FTE enrolments.

It is not clear whether this increase is a result of the lifting of the student numbers cap in 2015/16. What is notable is that the top providers did not increase their market share more during this period, given the removal of this cap. However, it is likely that data for 2020/21 will show that this has changed, and it may be even more pronounced for 2021/22, with anecdotal evidence suggesting some universities significantly ‘over recruited’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A second important finding is that the health of an individual history department is closely related to that of its parent university. There is a strong positive correlation between the change in an institution’s history FTE numbers and change in its overall FTE numbers. History recruitment is dependent on overall institutional recruitment or standing. In other words, the better an institution has done overall in terms of recruitment, the better its history department is likely to have done (and vice versa). Again, we see the dominance of the Russell Group of universities, where enrolments, both total and for history, have almost all grown over this 5-year period.

Figure 3. Changes in FTE enrolments, 2014/15–2019/20, Total vis-à-vis history (by status).

Source: Reproduced from Figure 5, Trends in History in UK Higher Education, p. 16.

Recruitment growth as a driver of university strategy has wide implications for history departments across the sector. Undergraduate recruitment is an ever-present pressure, even when there is no immediate cause for concern. In one post-92 university studied, large investments in campus and estate development have been predicated on increased recruitment. The institutional approach to this has hinged on the creation of more courses to generate more income, while the need to generate increased undergraduate recruitment has produced a drive toward reorganisation as senior managers are appointed with change mandates. Although this may be intended to meet the needs of areas of the institution where there are genuine recruitment crises, knock-on effects for other areas are inevitable.

Staffing resources and subject specialisms have been under pressure from recruitment instability, above all outside of the Russell Group. At another post-92 university with stable recruitment, there is pressure on staffing structures, with the result that staff already on full workloads must cover for colleagues on sick leave or parental leave, for example. There has been a sense in this department that specialisms have been devalued by the fluid and interchangeable ways that staff are assigned to roles. The course structure norm is to offer only core modules, taken by all students. This has made it harder to diversify areas of and approaches to teaching. At one university in Scotland, there are workload pressures on staff because of high recent student recruitment levels and cuts to professional services. Success in admissions has led to the creation of new staff positions but not at a level commensurate with increasing student numbers. The disproportionality between student recruitment and staff workload has resulted in high instances of stress and burnout. Whilst history is not under any threat of direct cuts, these factors create what may be an unsustainable situation in the longer term.

In one Russell Group university in the north of England, undergraduate history enrolments had peaked in 2016/17 before returning to 2014/2015 levels, commensurate with university-wide enrolment. One consequence of this recruitment arc was the tendency for targets that had been presented as being exceptional during the period of over-recruitment to have been subsequently normalised, thus becoming harder to meet, and giving the false impression of worsening performance.

Conclusions

While recruitment of history students has fallen across the UK in recent years, the picture is uneven. Larger institutions have retained their market dominance by taking a high proportion of history students, and they have maintained or increased their absolute numbers. Over-recruitment by, in particular, some Russell Group universities looks likely to continue to present challenges. Anecdotal evidence leads us to speculate that enrolment data yet to be published are likely to show this problem as having worsened. The tragedy in this is, of course, that over-recruitment is neither to the benefit of the universities that miss out, nor to the benefit of those that over-recruit. Without changes in government policy such as a reintroduction of recruitment caps, it is hard to see a clear route to tackling this problem.

The data gathered in this report also suggests that academic historians in isolation from other colleagues have limited power to reverse a decline in history recruitment. Declining history recruitment appears to be symptomatic of overall falls in recruitment in host institutions. This is unlikely to be meaningfully influenced at the level of the individual department – and is not one that is peculiar to history. Some of 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, have yet to be fully realised. This indicates that a key element to combatting threats to history lies in building cross-disciplinary (or, in resourcing terms, cross-departmental) relationships of collaboration and solidarity.

Elizabeth Tingle, Professor of History, De Montfort University, drawing on Trends in History in UK Higher Education. Read the full report 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).

History UK fellowship – history skills passport mapping exercise

History UK is launching a new initiative to develop a history ‘skills passport’. This project will provide a framework for translating the skills that students develop on history courses into the skills language recognised by employers. The aim is to provide history academics and students with a series of resources that will support the embedding of employability within curricula in discipline-specific language. During the first phase of the project we will conduct a mapping exercise, which will involve surveying existing resources on History skills and on employability in History in the UK and abroad, cross-referencing with other disciplines, and identifying gaps.

History UK is seeking a postgraduate student for a short-term fellowship to support the first phase of this initiative. The History UK fellow will conduct desk-based searches of websites, blog posts, and social media for relevant case studies, reports, and other practical guides. They will write clear and concise summaries of their findings to help inform the resources that History UK will produce and curate. They will write at least one blog post for the History UK website on a topic of their choosing (relevant to the initiative), and may also be asked to assist in planning for the next phase of the skills passport project.

The fellow will be expected to do 30 hours work on the project in July, working flexibly at times that suit them. The renumeration for the fellowship is fixed at £500.

Person specification:

  • A postgraduate student (MA or PhD) in History, or a related discipline, based at a higher education institution in the UK;
  • Strong research skills;
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills;
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision;
  • Excellent organisation and project management skills;
  • Attention to detail;
  • Experience of writing reports (preferable);
  • Interest in employability (preferable).

To apply: Send a two-page CV and a one-page cover letter to historyuk2020@gmail.com. In the cover letter you should explain why you are interested in the role, how you meet the person specification, and what you will bring to the initiative.

The deadline for applications is Weds 23rd June at 4pm.

Pandemic Pedagogy: a student perspective 2

By Sophie Moennich (University of Roehampton)


Now over a year since the first lockdown, many history students have adapted to the challenges of online learning. But levels of engagement with online learning has seen wide variation, especially as time has gone on. Some lecturers have used new approaches to help history students stay engaged, something increasingly helpful as time has gone past. Jamboard, breakout rooms and other approaches have helped for history students to share their ideas and stay engaged.

When I asked other history students about their experiences, a common reply was that pre-recorded lectures have been really useful. One student commented that they ‘engaged even better than in person as there was no distraction and I could re-watch and make proper notes’. Pre-recorded lectures have allowed students a sense of control over their time, and responsibility to ensure that they have watched them before the seminar. They are even more important for international students who may be in a different time zone. Because lectures are more accessible, students are more able to engage throughout the seminar, and have a stronger understanding of the topic. Another student confirmed that ‘lecturers make sure everything is electronically available, so I have access to more than last year, especially e-books.’ This implies that for many history students, learning resources have been largely unaffected by online leaning.

Screenshot showing a Jamboard discussion on shellshock, with post-it notes highlighting key themes linked to the topic and to images of 'shell shocked' patients
Screenshot of a Jamboard discussion on shell shock

Breakout rooms and websites such as Jamboard have stood out to me as one of the most important developments. Breakout rooms have allowed students to share their ideas, and establish a sense of involvement for students who may prefer to share their ideas with a smaller group of people. This has helped students with different confidence levels, and also ensured that they stay engaged with their course. Additionally, Jamboard has allowed students to share their ideas on a virtual post-it note seen by everyone else in the seminar. This has been especially useful as it has allowed students to share their ideas anonymously and more extensively with other students’ ideas. This suggests that the transition to online learning has helped students who are less confident in sharing their ideas to feel more secure in doing so, even if anonymously.

On a personal and social level, one student I spoke to additionally revealed how online groupwork was also useful in offering a space to discuss how they were adapting to online learning, and to share ideas. With group presentations still occurring within my own course, students have been able to stay in contact and discuss module work together.

It is the sense of control over learning that I would like to emphasise going forward. It is so important to empower students when they watch lectures, and give them the space to share their ideas in an environment they feel comfortable with. This independence in relation to time management and preparation for seminars is especially important when so many may feel their motivation dwindling as a result of lockdown.


We’d like to thank Sophie for sharing the results of her research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!