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 Education. Read the full report here.