British Academy Report Finds HSS Graduates Resilient in Economic Downturns

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the precarity of employment has been a front-and-center concern around the world. So a new report from the British Academy offers a reassuring message to the humanities and social science  community: Graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences in the United Kingdom are as resilient to economic upheaval as other graduates and are just as likely to remain employed as STEM graduates during downturns.

While the analysis prepared by London Economics for the report was based on labor force statistics from before the pandemic – and so the unique situation of right now and its effects on the services sector in particular isn’t reflected — the report’s release this week is a well-timed boost for the community the Academy represents. The new report, Qualified for the Future: Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills, follows up from a 2017 British Academy report, The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills In The Arts, Humanities And Social Sciences. A steering group chaired by Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s national statistician, oversaw the report’s creation.

According to the summary of Qualified for the Future, graduates in the social sciences, humanities and arts “have skills employers value – communication, collaboration, research and analysis, independence, creativity and adaptability – and are able to build flexible careers which may move across a number of areas of employment while remaining resilient to economic downturns.” The report identifies several disciplines with especially bright prospects, including geography, sociology, and anthropology.

The report found that eight of the 10 fastest-growing sectors in the UK economy – such as the financial, legal and professional services, information and communication, and the creative industries — employ more arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) graduates than graduates from other disciplines. Six of those sectors draw more than two-thirds of their workforce from the AHSS pool. In particular, the service sector, which the report says accounts for 81 percent of the United Kingdom’s total economic output, employs the majority of humanities and social science graduates.

In the STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – fields the most likely employment sector is health.

One of the bigger disparities between STEM and AHSS grads is salary. Immediately after graduation, STEM graduates are likely to be better paid. Acknowledging that “it is a legitimate question to consider what the economic return is on the substantial investment which is a degree course, both in time and money,” the report says that over time “arts, humanities and social science graduates are able make strong progress up the career ladder into roles attracting higher salaries,” albeit still lower than in STEM. It also notes that part of the salary disparity goes back to the health sector: “Consistently high salaries in medicine and dentistry drive much of the difference, while the other discipline areas which make up the two broad groups show far more variance in earnings within subjects.”

Looking deeper into the sector results, the report’s authors argue that “most AHSS education and training is not designed to prepare students for one particular career direction, although there are exceptions such as law and psychology, and smaller discipline-specific employment routes within other subjects. Rather, students develop skills such as communication, collaboration, analysis and decision making, which open up a wide range of options, across the private, public and third sectors.”

Since “most jobs in the UK that require a degree do not need that degree to be in a specific discipline,” the flexibility that is the hallmark of much AHSS training serves to make the graduates employable. (To that point, the 2017 Labour Force Survey found that that 88 percent of humanities and social science graduates and 89 percent of STEM graduates were employed in that year.) Hasan Bakhshi, director of the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and executive director of creative economy and data analytics at the nonprofit Nesta, said the report “provides important new evidence that these graduates in the UK are already more likely than STEM graduates to change sector and role voluntarily and without wage penalty.”

Graduates themselves understand the utility of their employer-valued abilities. “Individuals who have studied AHSS disciplines are more likely to feel they have developed broader competence including research skills, independence, and critical thinking.”

“The evidence speaks for itself: arts, humanities and social science graduates are as employable as any other graduates and fare particularly well in times of economic decline,” said Hetan Shah, the Academy’s chief executive. “School students who are considering what they may wish to go on and study at university should feel reassured by this evidence that they can study subjects that they love and go on to have great career prospects.”

To read the full report, click here.

Listen to a Social Science Bites podcast with British Academy Chief Executive Hetan Shah discussing how social science is contributing during the pandemic. Click here.

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