A study of 11,000 alumni from the University of Oxford has shown that humanities graduates went on to work in the UK’s major growth sectors. The Oxford study can’t tell us much about the fate of graduates at other universities around the UK. But it does prompt a closer look at the stigma surrounding humanities subjects in the UK.
The study showed that 80% of Oxford humanities graduates from 1960 to 1989 worked in education, media, law, finance and management. These sectors each contributed between 5% and 25% of the UK’s overall gross domestic product in 1989.
The report recorded an increase of more than 100% in the number of philosophy and history graduates entering the finance sector, and concluded that the “mental agility” and “communication skills” fostered by studying humanities at Oxford means graduates can be increasingly mobile between employment areas.
This comes as no surprise to Maurice Biriotti, chief executive of SHM Ltd, an international business services firm that uses methods from the humanities to improve the way organisations work.
“The fact is, humanities people are very well represented in all sorts of business fields; finance, marketing, IT and HR to name a few. So the claim that humanities people aren’t capable of excelling in these roles is based on no evidence at all.”
“The real skill in many sectors lies in tackling complex problems, understanding the slipperiness of language and resolving conflict. Humanities are the technologies that we have developed as a society to help us approach these tasks,” he explained.
Considered in a broader UK context, the scope of the study is limited. At the moment 94% of Oxford students are employed six months after graduation, trumping the recorded national average of 74.4%. The average starting salary for an Oxford graduate is £25,000, while the UK average sits at £20,000. These figures confirm that being an Oxford graduate carries its own unique advantages, regardless of the subject studied.
Head of Humanities at Oxford, Shearer West, emphasised that more studies need to be done to increase the amount of evidence, so that students can be better informed about their career prospects.
She was optimistic that similar trends would apply across the UK. “The UK has many outstanding universities that offer excellent humanities programmes,” she said. “I suspect we would see a similar breadth of career pattern, even if there are some local variations.”
But Alice Bell of the University of Sussex had concerns about the debate.
“We need to lose the sense that education is a luxury and ensure it’s extended to all with the help of organisations like Arts Emergency,” she said. “I really worry about the ways in which some of the recent ideas about ‘value’ of humanities may run along class lines.”
“The biggest debate over employment in profitable sectors isn’t just about the tension between humanities and science,” she said. “It’s about what precisely is studied and where.”