Changing the narrative around employability for arts and humanities degrees

A picture of a stacked bookshelf taken at a bookshop.

Dr Richard Marsden, Dr Anna Plassart, and Cerith Rhys Jones reflects on a recent event to change the narrative around arts and humanities’ graduates’ employability.

Over the last few years, most people will have come across newspaper stories disparaging so-called ‘Mickey Mouse courses’. Many of us with degrees in arts and humanities subjects will have been asked, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ when we’ve told people what our degrees are in.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the arts and humanities are somehow less valuable. Indeed, it can sometimes be simpler to see how other subjects, particularly those of a more technical or vocational nature, will lead to a specific job.

But it would be a mistake to assume that those graduating with arts and humanities degrees are less employable. These graduates enter the workforce with a wide-ranging and well-rounded set of transferable skills that set them up for flexible careers in any number of sectors.

Nevertheless, the public perception of these graduates as somehow less skilled is damaging. It influences the decision-making of the universities who provide their courses, of the governments who set educational and economic policy, of the organisations who employ these graduates once they finish university, and ultimately of the students who would be taking the courses in the first place.

Welsh arts and humanities graduates pursue a wider range of occupations because of their transferable skills, not only at the start of their working lives, but throughout their careers

Such misleading perceptions therefore threaten the future of arts and humanities degrees. This poses a cultural risk to people’s access to and understanding of the arts. It poses a societal risk by downplaying the importance of values-driven careers.  It also poses an economic risk, given the contributions that graduates from these courses demonstrably make as employees, freelancers, and business owners.  

To address these misconceptions, The Open University and History UK recently brought together a group of academics, think tanks, regulators, business representatives, and students at a roundtable seminar with the aim of starting a conversation around the value of arts and humanities degrees in Wales.

Our summary paper from the event will be published shortly by the Learned Society of Wales, but we are pleased to share some early findings here.

The employability of arts and humanities graduates

The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report found in 2023 that employers most value analytical thinking, creative thinking, and resilience and flexibility in their employees and expect these skills, together with technological literacy, to grow in importance during the coming years. These are all skills that arts and humanities courses provide in spades. 

Indeed, data gathered by the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that Welsh arts and humanities graduates pursue a wider range of occupations because of their transferable skills, not only at the start of their working lives, but throughout their careers. This makes them better able to cope with changing economic circumstances that might require them to change job role or sector. Moreover, many work in some of the Welsh economy’s fastest-growing sectors and are responsible for a disproportionate number of start-ups.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that one of our roundtable participants reported that businesses in Cardiff and the southeast of Wales regularly find that arts and humanities graduates are more adept at taking on project leader roles due to their analytical and creative skills. Equally, they are valued for their communication skills and their empathy.

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Finally, one of the most convincing arguments for the ongoing value of arts and humanities subjects, and the skills they confer upon graduates, is the impact of new technology such as generative AI.

GenAI is likely to have profound effects on many professions and could render some that draw primarily on vocational skills obsolete. However, the transferable skills arts and humanities degrees equip their graduates with cannot be provided by technology alone.

Getting to the heart of the arts and humanities’ ‘employability problem’

Despite all this, the perception of arts and humanities graduates as less valuable persists. This leads to the misconception that the arts and humanities have an ‘employability problem’. This misconception, in turn, contributes to the declining numbers of students taking these subjects at school, and subsequently at university.

Admittedly, arts and humanities graduates tend to have slightly lower starting salaries than their counterparts who graduated in science-heavy subjects, but their pay then rises more sharply over the course of their careers. What’s more, the discrepancy in starting salaries is largest not between the arts and humanities and other subjects, but rather between a small number of occupations such as medicine and engineering, which pay particularly well at the outset, and all other degree subjects, whether they are part of the arts and humanities or not. 

Universities could do more to effectively embed the teaching of employability within arts and humanities subjects

There are also some significant problems with the data that universities, governments and prospective students use to assess the likely pay-off from doing an arts and humanities degree.  

For example, the graduate outcome survey happens 15 months after graduation. But arts and humanities graduates often take longer to settle upon a career path, precisely because so many options are open to them. This survey also categorises ‘graduate jobs’ based on job title rather than salary, and fails to take account of either the different shapes that careers can take in different sectors, or of graduates’ own plans and aspirations.

That may well be why both the British Academy and the Higher Education Policy Institute agree that the arts and humanities ‘employability problem’ is largely a myth.

Next steps

Our roundtable found that universities could do more to effectively embed the teaching of employability within arts and humanities subjects, and to help students better understand and articulate how their learning is equipping them with skills for the future. Employers themselves, as well as schools, should be part of that work.

More broadly, our roundtable agreed on the need to rethink the data that is collected about the employability of graduates. The creation of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research is an opportunity to do this, and a chance to remind politicians, policymakers, regulators, and funders of the value that arts and humanities graduates bring to the economy and our wider society.

Finally, our roundtable agreed on the need to tell a clearer and simpler story about the value of arts and humanities subjects, and to communicate that story more widely and in a more coherent way. There is much to learn from our STEM colleagues, who have done a lot of effective work during recent years to raise the profile of their disciplines.

A good first step would be to agree collectively on a catchy acronym for our area – such as the instantly-recognisable STEM; answers on a postcard, please.

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Cerith Rhys-Jones is Senior Manager of Public Affairs at the Open University in Wales
Dr Anna Plassart sits on the Steering Committee of History UK and is Senior Lecturer in History at The Open University.
Dr Richard Marsden is a Senior Lecturer in History and the Academic Lead for the Open College of the Arts at The Open University.

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