A degree in the social sciences and international study or work experience are the two most common characteristics of professional leaders around the world, according to research from the British Council.
The study, which will be revealed at the organisation’s Going Global conference today, shows that 44 per cent of leaders have a social sciences degree, making it the most popular discipline for those at the top, followed by business (14 per cent), engineering (12 per cent) and the humanities (11 per cent).
While leaders in government are most likely to come from a background in social sciences (with 33 per cent having such a degree), those in non-profit organisations are most likely to have taken humanities degrees (33 per cent).
Women and leaders under the age of 45 also have a slightly higher percentage of social sciences and humanities degrees compared to men and older leaders, the study found. Younger leaders were also more likely to have a master’s degree in those disciplines (51 per cent).
The study, conducted in partnership with Ipsos Public Affairs, surveyed 1,709 current professional leaders with higher education qualifications from 30 countries and across sectors. Leaders were defined as those who are in a position of influence within their organisation and their sectors more broadly.
The research also found that a third of professional leaders have international work experience and the same number have education experience abroad; 17 per cent have both.
The likelihood of international study increases with degree level; less than one fifth (16 per cent) of leaders have bachelor’s degrees from another country, whereas over one third (38 per cent) have advanced degrees from overseas institutions.
International experience is generally lowest in English-speaking countries (Canada, the US and UK), where only a quarter of leaders have any experience overseas, and highest in Middle Eastern countries, where almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of leaders have studied or worked abroad.
However, out of those leaders that travelled internationally for their undergraduate education, 40 per cent studied in the US and 17 per cent went to the UK.
Beyond formal training and knowledge development, the leaders surveyed described higher education as providing broader skills which equipped them for success.
Rebecca Hughes, British Council director of education, said: “The world needs leaders who can handle complexity and give diverse perspectives on the challenges we all face.
“Globally, we need to go beyond a simple 'two cultures' binary outlook these days and as this research suggests, it is those with backgrounds that enable them to draw from multiple cultural reference points, and the academic training that encourages them to explore the human dimensions behind empirical data, who have tended to succeed and reach positions of leadership.”
A separate study unveiled at the conference by the British Council, in partnership with Unesco and the World Bank, revealed that the nine largest higher education systems, including those in the UK, USA, India and China, do better in global rankings and have greater opportunities for international collaboration.
However, they also struggle with similar problems, such as providing greater access for non-traditional students, maintaining quality during a period of fast growth, and finding a balance between steering the system in the right direction while also providing autonomy for institutions or regions.