The University of Oxford has used a study of its humanities graduates’ careers to question the government’s financial prioritisation of science students, a policy it claims was “formulated without an evidence base”.
Oxford has tracked the fortunes of around 11,000 alumni who joined the university between 1960 and 1989 and concludes that they have played a growing role in emerging UK industrial sectors, particularly finance and law.
Relying on salary data from graduates’ first jobs is “not a sound basis” for judging the impact of humanities degrees throughout alumni’s working lives, Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact argues.
Currently, information on graduate salaries detailed on the government’s revamped Unistats website details average earnings six months after students finish their courses.
Shearer West, head of humanities at Oxford, said that there was a worrying belief among the public that students should take only vocational subjects at university and that humanities degrees would not lead to high salaries.
“I get very concerned when I see pupils in schools being advised not to study humanities because they won’t get a job. It’s the cultural perception and it gets embedded without any evidence,” she added.
Professor West said she hoped other universities and organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development would also conduct large longitudinal studies to build the evidence base for humanities graduates’ economic contributions.
She acknowledged that the Oxford research surveyed only a small section of the UK’s humanities alumni – and that its graduates’ role in the financial services boom might not win them universal praise.
But the report, published on 11 July, says that the coalition’s decision to remove teaching funding for the humanities implies that these subjects are “of secondary importance to the economy”, a “central tenet for which policy was formulated without an evidence base”.
Unlike the humanities, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses still receive government subsidy, although David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has attempted to reassure universities that this is because they are more expensive to teach, not because they are valued more.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that STEM is important to the economy,” said Professor West. “Support for STEM is a no-brainer. But what the report is demonstrating is the contribution that the humanities can make.”
The study, which includes a supportive foreword from Oxford vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton, finds that over the three decades in question, humanities graduates from Oxford shifted from teaching to careers in finance, law and the media.
“Humanities graduate employment expanded rapidly into key growing economic sectors in advance of government policy that encouraged these sectors. Rising rates of employment by sector in some degree subjects not only track but exceed increases in [gross domestic product] contributed by those sectors,” it concludes.