Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

For employers, the Social Sciences stand up to the STEM obsession

  • 21 September 2020
  • By Sharon Witherspoon

This blog has been kindly contributed by Sharon Witherspoon, Head of Policy at the Academy of Social Sciences and the Campaign for Social Science. Prior to this Sharon was the Director at the Nuffield Foundation.

Universities are currently focussed on managing the challenges arising from COVID-19: reorganising how they teach, considering how to increase safety on campus and in face-to-face teaching, coping with changes in the numbers of their new UK intake as a result of the move to Centre Assessed Grades across the United Kingdom, and uncertainty about the numbers of international students who will turn up.

But a number of medium-term higher education policy issues are still lurking. Against a rumbling background of commentary about ‘low quality’ or ‘low value’ courses, proposed changes to the regimes for funding and evaluating universities are awaited. One is the Government’s response to the Augar Review, including the question of differential fees which some have suggested is the way forward. A second is what will happen to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), signalled most recently by the announcement of a review of National Student Satisfaction survey which currently plays a part in the building of the league table approach to the TEF.        

One problem with many of the public debates and, indeed, some of the mooted policies, is that they do not acknowledge that there are no simple one-dimensional measures of university performance or quality. Policies that presume this are not only inaccurate (given the empirical evidence), but unlikely to deliver the results hoped for, as well as being potentially damaging to both universities and students.

An example is the TEF. This is a larger issue than the short-comings in the National Student Survey. In its engagement with the Pearce Review, the Academy of Social Sciences noted that different universities do different things and that different students have different preferences (on issues such as living at home or getting jobs locally). We noted that different disciplines are likely to lead to lower salary trajectories while still being socially valuable (for instance, teaching and social work). No single measure could capture all this. We suggested that a ‘radar chart’ of key measures of ‘quality’ or ‘outcomes’ (chosen with an evidence-based justification) would be more helpful in informing students, and that this did not fit with a unidimensional ‘league table’ approach. The recommendations of that review have not yet been published, nor have the government’s larger plans for TEF.

The government’s response to the Augar Review is also awaited, but it will face some of the same issues. Universities will no doubt produce evidence about the cross-subsidies between subjects and about student preferences. Discussions of ‘low value’ or ‘low quality’ degrees or disciplines will reappear. While that concern may be understandable in some cases, the framing of some of the debate is based on some unhelpful myths, and it is essential to challenge these.

For instance, evidence about graduate employment rates and earnings shows that the average post-graduation salaries of social science graduates are very similar to those of STEM graduates, with much variation by disciplines within both areas. A previous Campaign for Social Science report, Positive Prospects, went through the evidence for recent graduates, and was backed up by longer-term analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which showed that the disciplinary differences that indeed exist did not fit the pattern of a simple STEM/non-STEM divide. Factors such as the individual higher education institution and local labour markets also played a large role, as was recently argued in another HEPI blog.  

In our most recent report, Vital Business: the Essential Role of the Social Sciences in the UK Private Sector, we looked at the issue in a different way. This report is based on eight case studies of UK businesses. It covers a range of different sectors, including businesses that are often thought of as science-based. The findings challenge some of the common myths about the usefulness of social science knowledge and skills in employment.

Based on intensive interviews in each of the companies, Vital Businessshows that social sciences are both widely-used and valued by businesses: in leadership roles; in running the business day-to-day (including finance, HR and so on); to understand consumers and markets and regulations; in strategic planning and risk analysis; and even in R&D, including often working jointly with STEM scientists. Our press release pulls out some of the key findings and quotes, as does the summary of the report.

There are some important implications for higher education policy.

First, higher education policy should engage more systematically with employers. Our report suggests that for businesses to succeed they need employees with diverse skills and disciplinary backgrounds. We encourage policy makers not to take an overly-simple view that only STEM subjects matter to business success. What matters to business is having the right knowledge and skills across the range of their work. It is not ‘either / or’ but ‘both / and’. It will be worth bearing this in mind when the government responds to the Augar Review.

Vital Business also shows that social science graduates’ substantive knowledge and methodological skills were valued. Political science graduates and geographers were, for example, often mentioned as particularly important to analysing risks, including geopolitical risk, and in strategic planning. Graduates from economics, demography, geography, and psychology were often mentioned in understanding marketing, behaviour in different circumstances, the impact of regulatory regimes, and so on. The content of what these employees know matters to their employers.

Second, while it clear that number and data skills are valued, and increasingly so across the private sector, this is again not just a matter for STEM disciplines. Both Vital Business and Positive Prospects show that these skills are valued within social sciences disciplines as varied as management, psychology, geography, political science, demography and so on.

The fact is that this is not a zero-sum game: we need both more STEM graduates and more social science graduates with these skills. To achieve that means addressing not only what is taught at universities (at undergraduate and postgraduate levels), but probably requires changes at secondary education too. Welcome though it is, adding a module on large-scale data for the A-level maths qualification is just the start. Consideration should also be given to bringing back AS level maths and giving it weight in university entry. It means increasing the number and data content of various social science (and indeed STEM science) A-levels.

The Campaign for Social Science has long advocated that recognising these multiple pathways would be the best way to address the need for these skills; some of our member Learned Societies are already ensuring that happens. That would not only support the diverse disciplinary preferences of students, but result in a broader and deeper upskilling than the current narrow focus only on A-level maths or STEM subjects is likely to achieve on its own.

Meanwhile, important though graduate salaries are, we don’t believe that this is the only metric that matters. Nor, we think, do UK private sector businesses. We hope the Department for Education plans to find out, before it finalises its future plans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *