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Graduate salaries and new challenges for the arts, humanities and social sciences

Last week's LEO data on salary outcomes had both encouraging and difficult news for the arts, humanities and social sciences disciplines. The British Academy's Harriet Barnes looks at the lessons for these subjects.
This article is more than 5 years old

Harriet Barnes is Head of Policy (Higher Education and Skills) at the British Academy.

The latest Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data release provides a useful additional insight into what we know about how graduate outcomes differ between subjects and institutions.

The availability of data which provide a more long-term picture is particularly welcome. The limitations of existing sources of data such as DLHE have been widely acknowledged. DLHE’s six month timescale is not helpful enough when students often take much longer to decide on a firm career path. In the case of many arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, the number of employment sectors a graduate might enter is large and varied, and a student may take time to find the right fit for them. That students are able to explore these opportunities is important, but so is having data which helps to provide an accurate picture of the trajectories on which these students are embarking.

For the disciplines represented by the British Academy, the picture from the LEO data reinforces what we already knew, anecdotally and from other sources. Economics, business and law attract a premium, while graduates in the creative arts – for complex reasons well outlined by Andrew McGettigan –  typically earn less. Indeed, economics, business and law are the subject areas which attract the highest salaries overall. Other humanities and social science disciplines tend to be towards the bottom of the scale, but there are also STEM subjects such as agriculture and biological sciences in that bottom half. In fact, if one excludes the unusual cases of medicine, dentistry and veterinary science at the top, and of creative arts at the bottom, then median salaries five years after graduation only vary by £10,000 across disciplines.

Moreover, as many commentators have pointed out, graduate outcomes are not just about employment and earnings. LEO data doesn’t tell us what types of role graduates are working in, or how their higher education course might have equipped them to do it. This is why the British Academy is carrying out our Flagship Skills Project, which aims to articulate and celebrate the skills developed by studying arts, humanities and social sciences. We are collecting a range of new evidence about the destinations of undergraduate and postgraduate students in these subjects and the value that they bring to employers, the economy and wider society.

80% of the UK’s economy is in the service sector, which in turn relies on the skills and knowledge derived from studying and researching arts, humanities and social sciences disciplines, such as law, financial services, the creative and cultural industries, heritage, entertainment and tourism. Arts, humanities and social sciences create graduates who are well equipped to deal with the challenges we face today: to analyse and evaluate evidence; to describe and contextualise, pointing out and unravelling complexity; to be resilient, adaptable and flexible, with an ability to navigate change.

From LEO data, modern languages stands out within the humanities as a subject area where graduates tend to achieve higher salary levels five years after graduation. The British Academy’s languages skills programme, which ran from 2011 to 2016, was set up to try to tackle the visible decline in the uptake of languages throughout the education system, including in schools. It promoted the importance of languages in the fields of security and international relations, as well as celebrating the wider skills which studying languages develops, in negotiation, diplomacy and cultural awareness, all things which are only going to grow in importance in the current geopolitical environment. Hopefully, the economic evidence provided by LEO will help to make this case even more convincing.

One hypothesis we’re hoping to test in the Flagship Skills Project is that many arts, humanities and social science graduates go on to work in the public or third sector. Given that salaries are typically lower in these areas than in the private sector, this may also explain some of what we see in the LEO data. It is also possibly another factor in the gender pay gap revealed by LEO, since almost all arts, humanities and social sciences subjects have a majority of female graduates, who may then be more likely to enter these sectors. It would be helpful if future iterations of LEO and DLHE include more nuanced information about the nature of graduates’ employment, beyond the Standard Industrial and Occupational Classifications codes and salary data.

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