As the dust settles from GCSEs, students face a big step up to A-levels and a future career. For those from a family on a low income, a vocational route in a skilled trade is often a solid choice. The value of the arts and humanities such as history, English, and languages are overlooked. This isn’t helped by the frequent rhetoric about apparent ‘low-value’ arts and humanities courses from the Government. And with the cost-of-living crisis and a demanding graduate job market (to say the least), it’s understandable to want more job security in tough times. But this shouldn’t be a barrier. In most cases, the so-called financial downsides of studying the humanities, compared to STEM subjects, are less, and we have much more to gain as a society.
Humanities graduates really don’t fare as badly as other subjects in the long term. Graduates of social sciences, humanities, and arts make up 58 percent of FTSE executives. Meanwhile, one survey by the British Academy found that their employment rates and earnings ten years after graduation were almost identical to those of STEM graduates. The creative industries also employ 2.3 million people and generate £108 billion a year.
Education for its own sake is something we should all have the freedom and access to as a route for overall happiness and wellbeing. Not only to the select few with the financial security. Many pupils who go on to study the humanities say it has a transformative impact on their identity and how they see the world. Yes, their earnings were below the average of STEM subjects in lots of studies, but their job satisfaction in their chosen careers is very high, and often not motivated by financial reasons.
For students with a wide range of interests and a boundless curiosity the humanities opens up the path to a wide range of sectors, the largest percentage (one-fifth) go into some form of business where their skills are much valued by employers; critical analysis, strategic and long-term thinking, the skill to condense and synthesize complex information, and problem-solving.
Hidden within this, however, are the discrepancies between the working class pupils who study a humanities subject at a former polytechnic University compared with Oxbridge graduates.
A recent study by the University of Oxford which followed 9,000 Oxford humanities graduates through the job market found their humanities graduates were among the most resilient and had the flexibility to adapt their skills during challenging times such as recessions, or the most recent cost of living crisis.
Professor Dan Grimley, Head of Humanities at Oxford University, said of the report’s findings: “I often hear young people saying that they would love to continue studying music or languages or history or classics at A-level and beyond, but they fear it would compromise their ability to get an impactful job. I hope this report will convince them – and their parents and teachers – that they can continue studying the humanities subject they love and at the same time develop skills which employers report they are valuing more and more.”
Putting these university distinctions to one side, the biggest danger in restricting wider access to subjects like English, philosophy, or politics is working-class students don’t see themselves as taking an active role in shaping society. The intake of MPs in this parliament shows how popular the humanities are: over half studied either politics, history, economics, philosophy, or law. If our lawmakers and representatives come from an increasingly smaller section of society, in that sense, we all have something to lose, and therefore much to gain from wider participation in the humanities.