Should humanities degrees prioritise digital, vocational and mathematical skills to improve graduate career prospects and earnings, stem declining enrolments and curry favour with policymakers?
That is the suggestion of a new report published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) that aims to analyse the challenges for the humanities.
There are fewer humanities graduates than a decade ago – and numerous studies have found that students with these degrees tend to acquire less well-paid work on average than STEM, law and social science graduates. Employers – and as a result, politicians – emphasise the significance maths and digital skills will play in the future of work.
The report suggests a twin approach to resolve this issue.
The governments of the UK should require all students in key stage five to study mathematics, a modern foreign language and one humanities subject. Most other developed nations mandate that students pursue a diverse range of subjects before entering university. This approach, the report argues, would mean more STEM graduates would leave university with enhanced critical thinking and writing skills – and crucially, ensure humanities graduates boast better numeracy skills.
The report argues that universities should aim to augment the skillsets of humanities graduates by including digital skills in their courses. Those topics could be directly related to their discipline, like the ethics of artificial intelligence, or with a more vocational inclination.
The report’s author, Dr Gabriel Roberts, says many interpret the language of ministers to mean humanities subjects – by not being STEM or vocational – are less necessary or required. Graduates with better skillsets might not only find better-paid, graduate-level employment, but repay more of their tuition fee loans, the report adds.
The lively current debates on issues like statues and decolonising the curriculum prove that most people know we can only fully understand our society when the humanities thrive
– Nick Hillman, Hepi
Fewer students are studying humanities degrees than a decade ago: annual enrolments in the final years of this decade were around 40,000 lower than the years at the start, against a backdrop of expanding HE participation.
The drop is also noticeable at A-level. When adjusted for the percentage change in the 18-year-old population, the number of history students at key stage five has fallen 10 per cent between 2016 and 2020 and the number of classic students has fallen 20%. Roberts suggests that students may be discouraged by boring curriculums or a less clear route to a high-paying career at the end.
“There’s an extensive literature on the humanities, but few studies consider what’s going on in schools as well as the labour market, too few separate the humanities from the arts and the social sciences and too few identify specific problems and solutions,” said Roberts.
“There’s a strong case for broadening post-16 education in the UK. A-Levels are strikingly narrow by international standards, and the success of the International Baccalaureate and the Extended Project Qualification shows pupils can handle greater breadth than A-Levels offer. The growing popularity of interdisciplinary degrees should also tell us something about the kind of education that many young people want. There is a strong case for change.”
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi and a former history teacher, said: “One crucial strength of the UK is how strong we are across a range of academic disciplines – sciences and arts, humanities and social sciences. To maintain that strong across-the-board performance, we must be constantly vigilant to ensure every disciplinary area receives the necessary support.”
He added: “The lively current debates on issues like statues and decolonising the curriculum prove that most people know we can only fully understand our society when the humanities thrive.”
A recent study by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) raised concerns over shrinking numbers of pupils studying across different disciplines at sixth form. The report commissioned by the Royal Society warned that students in England are increasingly studying an “exceedingly narrow” range of subjects at A-level, with the proportion studying subjects in multiple fields half what it was in 2010.