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Humanities by the numbers

What do some of the sector's favourite data sets tell us about the difference between the sciences and the humanities? David Kernohan asks some hypothetical aliens to help.
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe.

What’s a humanity? The definition will vary depending on the point that you are trying to make – and the various nationally presented statistics offer a range of different interpretations, often (LEO) in order to massage the underlying data into the narrative

What should be remembered is that although both HECoS and JACS offer a detailed set of definitions covering just about anything that could be studied at a UK university, these codes are applied – without central oversight – by institutional staff. The purity of descriptive metadata can often be polluted by attempts to get a particular bit of provision into a particular presentational bucket for reputational or financial gain. And this is why we can’t have nice data, or indeed an accurate description of “the humanities”.


Consider a hypothetical alien species. They could work out physical, biological and mathematical laws that govern the universe, as these can be empirically derived from first principles – they are sciences. But other subjects relate specifically to the accretion of human thought – so our aliens could not master these without reference to human culture – they are humanities.

So I’ve gone full on reductionist here – it’s either a science (JACS A-K), or not (JACS L-X). I can almost feel the ghost of C.P. Snow breathing down my neck.

What do we know?

Our first set of charts shows at that, apart from in one key measure, there is little difference between the two in purely instrumental terms. Initial interest (Hotcourses) slants towards the sciences, but this early lead is chipped away during the rigour of applications (UCAS), with acceptances (UCAS) almost equal between the two cultures.

Humanities students tend to be more satisfied – or more effusive – than their lab safety goggle wearing peers, according to the National Student Survey.

Different data

But on the LEO salary measure, humanities graduates are generally about one data point behind the sciences (one-year graduated science graduates earn about the same as three-year graduated humanities students, and so forth). To dig into that in more detail, I turned to the Graduate Labour Market Statistics.

Remember that rather than looking at all graduates by individual cohorts, GLMS takes a multi-variate weighted sample of all graduates between two age points (in this case 21-30 years old). While LEO is tantalisingly close to tracking individual students – indeed DfE/HMRC can probably do this anyway if they want to – GLMS is very much a higher level state of the nation.

In this analysis (which isn’t directly comparable with the other data as they invent a “Law, Economics, Mathematics” – the third culture? – subject grouping that distorts the purity of my simple split so I ignored it) the split is less noticeable. Humanities graduates are marginally more likely to be employed and marginally less likely to be unemployed or inactive.

But humanities graduates are significantly less likely to be in what is defined as highly-skilled employment.

What’s that, then?

There’s a lovely DfE publication linked to the last TEF, that dives into this category and the graduate attributes that may drive it in more detail. Basically, a role rated in Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) sub-group 1-3, or in further study, is what counts there – and the methodological notes for GLMS take an identical stance, but in less depth. Your SOC (Standard Occupation Classification) sub-groups 1-3 cover managerial, professional, and associate professional/technical occupations – which pretty much explains the subject difference if you consider how many more entry-level positions in the sciences are “professional” or “technical”.

GLMS has median salary data too – the wider age range and representative sampling yields a less stark difference between the two cultures – indeed, were economics and law to be added back in on the humanities side of the equation we may well see the difference nearly disappear.

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