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Humanities and Social Sciences graduates hold the answers to the world’s most pressing questions

Introducing a new report from the British Academy, Ian Diamond finds humanities and social sciences graduates playing an essential role in modern society
This article is more than 1 year old

Ian Diamond is the UK's National Statistician, and a Fellow of the British Academy

With the UK facing a catalogue of profound challenges at home and abroad, it is fair to say that our new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has a lot on his plate.

Questions abound. What should we do to plug the £50bn hole in the public finances and tackle inflation? How can we attend to the societal damage wrought by the pandemic? And how can we boost productivity in a way that delivers benefits for communities up and down the country without accelerating the climate crisis?

Of course, the answers to such questions are complex and ever changing but one thing is certain: the problems we face will require a wide range of skills and expertise and particularly those most commonly taught to graduates of SHAPE subjects (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts) – critical thinking, creativity and problem solving, among others.

Shaping the future

Since 2017, the British Academy has been examining the skills, contributions and career prospects of humanities and social sciences graduates. Our first report, The Right Skills (2017), examined how the core skills gained through studying these subjects correlated with those most in-demand by employers, while Qualified for the Future (2020) demonstrated strong employment outcomes.

We have just published our third and final report, SHAPE Skills at Work, which uses twelve case studies to illustrate the exciting careers that graduates can build. Case studies include a Philosophy graduate who now works at Google as a Product Lead for Android Machine Learning, a Theology graduate who directed Cambridge University Hospital’s strategy during the pandemic, and a video and film editor who originally studied business management.

So, after five years and three reports, what have we learned?

A good job

Perhaps most surprising to some is the evidence on employability, which showed that SHAPE graduates are just as employable as their counterparts in STEM – analysis of the 2017 Labour Force Survey, used in our 2020 report, revealed that 88 per cent of humanities and social science graduates and 89 per cent of STEM graduates were employed in that year. Of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy at the time, eight were found to employ more graduates from the arts, humanities and social science than other disciplines.

A global survey of 1000 business leaders by the Harvard Business Review suggested why. It found that the skills most in-demand by employers are those in which SHAPE graduates specialise – from communication, problem solving and creativity, to research and analysis. This makes SHAPE graduates well-suited to a variety of roles in a wide range of fields, in the private sector and the public sector. The Harvard Business Review survey found that 76 per cent of private companies with successful talent recruitment were more likely to hire graduates with humanities and social sciences degrees. Meanwhile, just over 80 per cent of successful candidates in the civil service Fast Stream and Fast Track programmes have degrees in SHAPE and other non-science disciplines.

Our research also showed that SHAPE graduates play an essential role in the UK’s (largely services-dominated) economy, driving productivity and boosting innovation.

Over half of the UK’s leading start-ups were founded by SHAPE graduates and 59 per cent of the leaders of FTSE100 companies have backgrounds in SHAPE disciplines, ranging from business and management to languages and history. This is to say nothing of the value of the booming creative industries, which are dominated by SHAPE graduates. According to the government’s own figures, in 2019 these industries contributed £115.9 billion of gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy, over 5 per cent of total UK GVA.

Such statistics, however, do not fully convey the true value of studying the humanities and social sciences. As our SHAPE Skills at Work report shows, it is not just the economy that benefits from these subjects but society too. Those interviewed were effusive in their praise for their degrees and for the positive real-world impact that their skills allowed them to make.

Meet Melissa

For instance, Melissa Bennett, a Community Engagement Officer at the Greater London Authority, explained how her doctorate on Caribbean colonial history was essential to her role coordinating with NHS England to address vaccine hesitancy through community engagement.

My history studies helped me to learn to get to the point and communicate accessibly in a great range of outputs, including large reports, articles and exhibitions for the public

she said.

Throughout the pandemic, Melissa helped communicate key public health messages to communities – including Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, young people and poorer socio-economic groups – which government messaging sometimes failed to reach. Her experience is representative of the invaluable non-economic contributions made by SHAPE graduates, many of whom go into roles that are vital to the smooth running of our society, such as in teaching and social work.

Much has changed since we launched our skills programme. But, after the pandemic and amid a historic cost-of-living crisis, the value of studying SHAPE is clearer than ever.

Far from optional extras, the skills furnished through studying these subjects are indispensable to our economy, to society and to individuals. If the nation is to respond effectively to the many crises we face, we must draw on all the talent and all the skills available to us, including those from SHAPE as well as STEM.

2 responses to “Humanities and Social Sciences graduates hold the answers to the world’s most pressing questions

  1. Interesting stuff – and I’ve just had a quick look at the qualifications of the House of Commons. I stopped counting the humanities qualified when I got to 66% – including of course, Robert Halfon…

  2. I agree that “Humanities and Social Sciences graduates hold the answers to the world’s most pressing questions” but only as part of a Team that also includes specialists in the specific issues.

    Issues that challenge the world are most likely to be solved by teams from a variety of backgrounds. Diversity of membership in the team is of crucial importance in both refining and articulating the issues and coming up with the solutions and actions. We need a mix of both SHAPE and STEM practitioners lead by appropriate leaders.

    When seeking to identify talented individuals at all levels in the team, it is essential that we use proven tools including psychometric and other tests, to make the best decisions and chose the best qualified / best balanced teams.

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