Brains in their tales

March 28, 1997

Job prospects for humanities graduates are not extinct, says Rick Rylance. He's even got the documentary evidence to prove their existence

A usually responsible broadsheet newspaper recently ran a full-page story with the headline "Which One's The Dinosaur?" above a large picture of a plastic tyrannosaur and a young man staring gloomily to camera. The young man has a 2:1 in history from Oxford, and an MA in art history from the Courtauld, but is working in the wedding-lists department of a London store ensuring young couples have the right number of teapots and toasters. This is proposed as a metaphor for the typical fate awaiting humanities graduates in a job market increasingly thought to favour those with "vocational" qualifications. Arts, humanities and languages graduates, it was reported, are "up to their necks in rejection letters" as their vocationally oriented peers scoop the job pool. The evolutionary destiny of this species might therefore look bleak indeed.

Like much about the dinosaurs, I think these conclusions are mythical. But the kinds of assumptions the story makes have surfaced regularly in discussions about the future of higher education; discussions which have focused on the need for a closer gearing of higher education to employment. As a general proposition, I am not unsympathetic to this. None the less, I am concerned that a myth about the achievements of humanities disciplines distorts the argument because it relies on false assumptions about the relationship between these disciplines and employment.

Data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency presents one route to challenging the myths of which I complain. (In what follows I will speak of English, my own field, and trust the broader application will be clear.) English is among the largest disciplines in modern British higher education with around 40,000 students who read the subject singly or in combination. It is also the largest subject taken at A level. Entrants are well-qualified (one third of single honours students have between 26 and 30 points at A level), while the subject remains attractive to students from a variety of backgrounds (the majority, 54 per cent, are now counted as "mature" under HESA designations). Though precise figures are hard to come by, entry to English also appears to have grown by more than 70 per cent during recent years despite the promotion of vocational education.

The idea, therefore, that humanities disciplines are poor passports to employment seems at odds with the continuing size and popularity of English. And indeed the employment data does not suggest this conclusion. The 1996 volume of HESA's First Destinations of Students Leaving Higher Education, covering the cohort graduating in 1994/95, reveals that just under 50 per cent of English graduates were in work within six months of graduating, and that a further 32.3 per cent were undertaking further study or training, the substantial majority for teaching. In other words, 82.3 per cent were either in work or in training for specific career goals. Only 12.1 per cent were still seeking work, while the remainder were out of the job market for personal reasons.

If the same figures are examined for the HESA category "business and administrative studies", now the largest higher education subject area and one that includes accountancy, financial management and other areas perceived as directly vocational, an uncannily similar picture emerges. 83.3 per cent of such graduates were either in work or undertaking further study or training (compare 82.3 per cent for English) and 12.0 per cent were still seeking work (compare 12.1 per cent for English).

Just as surprising are the kind of jobs taken by these two groups. HESA uses categories drawn from the Standard Industrial Classification of Employers and both subject areas show a broad spread of employment destinations. There are more business graduates in the financial sector, as one would expect, and more English graduates in teaching. But the data also releases some surprises. As many graduates in English went into retailing as into teaching, and twice as many went into property management and development as public administration.

Most surprising of all, a greater proportion of the graduating cohort in English went into manufacturing than did their peers in business and administrative studies (16.8 per cent as against 15.8 per cent). This is an interesting statistic, not least because the received wisdom, within the subject and outside it, is that English has an anti-industrial bias in its intellectual constitution.

I am conscious that this raises important questions such as the "quality of employment" dimension emphasised by the tale of the wedding-list graduate. More important still is the key issue of the extent to which career aspirations are realised over longer periods of time as individuals develop. But it should be said that hard information does not appear to be available on these questions from either side of the conjectural vocational/non-vocational line.

At the very least, therefore, in the context of an employment market in which it is estimated that 50 per cent of graduate jobs require no specific expertise on entry, it does seem that what is considered "vocational" and what is not is a more complex problem than is suggested by metaphors of dinosaurs and evolutionary redundancy. This conclusion is supported by recent research commissioned for the Council for Industry and Higher Education which also found that, except in specialised instances, there is no significant difference in employment prospects between ostensibly vocational and ostensibly non-vocational graduates.

I think that we need therefore to reject the false opposition between specific skills and general intellectual development implied by notions of crude "vocational relevance". We have to think about our graduates' skills - of information analysis, intellectual initiative and flexibility, team-working, communication and problem solving - as a crucial part of the intellectual rigour of a higher education in the humanities within an information economy. It is these skills that produce valuable employees who are capable of rapid development at work and a significant contribution to the wider culture that creates and values them as citizens and individuals.

Rick Rylance is professor of modern English literature, Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge. He is also secretary, Council for College and University English.

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