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Improving the fortunes of the humanities means thinking about post-16 qualifications

  • 23 September 2021

The humanities are often said to be in crisis. But while the crisis narrative obscures many areas of growth and success, the modern humanities nevertheless face real challenges relating to enrolment, graduate employment, and funding.

The Humanities in Modern Britain: Challenges and Opportunities (HEPI Report 141) by Dr Gabriel Roberts, which is being published today, finds.

  • Humanities have experienced a long-term fall in relative size in UK universities: between 1961/62 and 2019/20, the proportion of UK students studying humanities subjects fell from around 28% to around 8%.
  • In recent years, the humanities have also seen an absolute fall in enrolments. The total number of humanities students at UK universities has fallen by around 40,000 over the last decade.
  • The declining popularity of the humanities extends to schools and colleges. Since 2016, almost all humanities subjects experienced a fall in A-Level entries larger than the decline in the 18-year old population.
  • The employment prospects of humanities graduates are less favourable than those of graduates in some other areas but the picture is mixed. Humanities graduates are just as likely as graduates in other areas to be employed, and when subjects are ordered according to the average salaries of graduates five years after graduation, humanities subjects fall in the middle of the range.
  • Humanities graduates have many of the skills that employers are expected to demand over the coming decade, but numerical and digital skills are areas of weakness.
  • Funding for the humanities has been mostly stable in recent years, but there are significant current challenges related to Brexit, COVID and the erosion of the unit of resource for teaching by inflation, meaning the future is uncertain.
  • Funding for humanities teaching varies widely in different parts of the UK. In Scotland, for instance, the unit of resource for Scottish students is around 40% lower than for English students in England.

The new report argues finding solutions to these challenges means thinking about the relationship between schools and colleges, universities, and employers. The specific proposals include reforming A-Levels so that pupils continue a humanities subject and maths to the end of their schooling and embedding professionally valuable skills more fully in humanities degrees to boost enrolments and the employment prospects of humanities graduates. The paper recognises the strides that have been taken in recent years in the digital humanities and the growing popularity of interdisciplinary degrees, both of which show how humanities degrees can be reimagined.

Gabriel Roberts, the author of the report and an English teacher who researched historical scholarship in the early enlightenment as a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, said:

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. This report aims to fill in these gaps.

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 the Higher Education Policy Institute 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.

It is often said there is a “crisis in the humanities” and there are certainly some big challenges for the humanities in relation to student numbers, funding and curricula. We must discuss, debate and deal with them. Nonetheless, the “crisis” narrative is too simplistic and too pessimistic. The true picture is more nuanced, more interesting and more positive, whether we look at teaching, course design or research.

Moreover, 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.

Notes for Editors

HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.


  1. John Claughton says:

    It is striking that senior figures in the
    Royal Society are some of the strongest advocates of a broader education and an end to the narrow specialisation at the age of 16. If even they don’t want students who study only Maths and 2 sciences, why are we still enacting a system which has imposed on our society the ‘Two Cultures’ identified by CP Snow over 60 years ago?

  2. albert wright says:

    I agree that the direction of travel should be for a broader based education pre 18 and for that to continue at University for the majority of students.

    However, there must be “concessions” for the individuals who have outstanding talents in specific subject areas. Talent develops best if those who have it are allowed to do more of what they love best and for which they have a “natural aptitude”.

    We do not expect our leading footballers to be good at swimming let alone be good linguists and mathematicians.

    Round pegs for round holes, with the ability and opportunity to switch for those who later become square pegs.

  3. John Claughton says:

    1. Sir Venki Ramakrishan, former President of the Royal Society 2017:
    ‘Our narrow education system, which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world. Many countries have moved, or are moving, towards a broader and more diverse curriculum in order to equip the next generation with a skill set they will need.’
    2. A broader curriculum does not preclude specialisation: hence Higher and Standard Level subjects at IB, with different time allocations, and the chance to choose two sciences or two languages or two humanities. There is no need for ‘concessions’.
    3. There is a danger in false analogies but increasingly young games players are being encouraged to play a wider range of sports for longer.

  4. S. Green says:

    I am a scientist by training. I teach A level Biology, Chemistry, Physics and occasionally Mathematics. I also spend a lot of time discussing career paths withGCSE, A level and Btec students as a head of sixth form.
    This opinion piece, for that is all it really is, irritates me beyond words. I wonder if the humanities graduate who wrote it, or the former history teacher Director of HEPI (who I can only assume is another humanities graduate) actually deal with A level students on a day to day basis? Or year 11 students picking options for their future careers?
    I have some amazing students studying English Literature and History who are so releaved at leaving Mathematics study behind that if they were forced to study it it would seriously damage their mental health. Or potential doctors who love their Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics but would be bored silly in an English class they did not want to do.
    What really gets me, though, is the fact the author states that the IB covers a broader range of subjects yet fails to enquire as to why it is not the most popular thing since sliced bread in the HE sector.
    It just reaks of moaning and comes up with a “We will force you whether you like it or not” conclusion that is then picked up by the press who would not know proper research if it ran up to them and bit them.

  5. John Claughton says:

    It’s dispiriting to see that the canyon that separates the ‘Two Cultures’ remains as deep as ever. I am in no position to defend the academic bona fides of the author or Mr Hillman and it is now five years since I was the head of a school but, as a teacher and head, I spent 25 years in A level schools and 6 years in a 100% IB school. From this I learnt:
    1. It cannot be a wise or caring system which requires pupils to choose three subjects and thereby make life-defining choices at the age of 16.
    2. Studying Maths does not create mental health issues for students who want to study English at university. In fact, many of them found it very valuable at university to have greater mathematical experience.
    3. Students who wanted to be scientists were not (necessarily) bored to be studying English and literature as they came to a maturity which enabled them to understand the value of reading. And, the study of English for two years did help them to be more confident in written and oral communication. Indeed, two more years of studying English was often most beneficial for those who were least confident in their English.
    4. A considerable number of universities of high quality continue to have an explicit preference for IB candidates.
    5. The university entry data of the school was much stronger under IB than it had been in the times of IB. In particular, more candidates for Medicine were successful in gaining places in the world of IB than in the world of A level, not least because the breadth of their education made them more interesting candidates.

    6. Key figures in the world of science and engineering – from the Royal Society and the IET – have been advocating a broader education for some time – indeed that recommendation was central to a Royal Society report several years ago.
    7. Students who had studied a broader curriculum went away to university with a broader perspective.
    8. IB has not grown in the UK in the last decade, but that has not been because those schools – and teachers – which have taught IB have not believed in it. It has been constricted by lack of funding in state schools and a caution and conservatism in schools, parents and pupils which has been hard to overcome in an educational world of constant change and constant demands.
    9. The problem of IB is that it is demanding – it’s hard work and you have to work hard for two years. So, students can be discouraged when they see their contemporaries doing only three subjects elsewhere and thereby getting quite a lot of free periods.
    10. I did Latin, Greek and Ancient History at A level in another century and I didn’t find Maths or science easy or appealing. However, I wish I’d done IB.

  6. albert wright says:

    An interesting range of opinions.

    Perhaps it is better to have a flexible system when it comes to the number of subjects to be studied until the age of 18 that suits the talents of each individual at different ages.

    If we broaden the discussion from science and humanities to include music and the arts and sport, it seems we need a way to balance breadth and depth

  7. Alex Turner-Claros says:

    I studied philosophy, politics and ethics at university. It provided me with hardly any job skills whatsoever. I studied English lit, history and religious studies at a level. I never excelled at any of them sadly, but aside from reading, writing and thinking (abilities I already had) none of those subjects have helped me in the job market.

    I am now trying to study science a levels online and hope to do a Bsc at some point in the future. I genuinely consider a driving licence, skilled (building but could be any) trade and science foundation more important that what was supposedly taught to me by the humanities department at my university, in terms of achieving job opportunities and therefore higher earning potential and job satisfaction. Not to mention, we can study aspects of the humanities on our own, by reading books.

    I also lost 3 years I could have been an apprentice or in trade college, and now be making good money, to reading books about various aspects of philosophy, politics and history. Fairly interesting yes but not useful. It provided insight yes, but not a complete one. You can come at the previously mentioned subjects from many angles not just those sold to you by your institution at university, all of whom I imagine, harbour some sort of private agenda (perhaps keeping their own jobs for a example). However I digress and must confess its not nice to be so cynical.

    We need schools and universities to teach relevant skills that are useful in our lives, jobs and societies. Honestly, it got to the point with some aspects of the humanities, that I thought people were just making up big and new words just to sound clever, without any real reason or purpose.

    I am actually a labourer, one of the most working class job positions one could get, and I’ve yet to find (aside from TEFL work abroad) any jobs with my humanities degree(especially in the UK) that have allowed me to use my brain, and engage my mind in any useful, valuable or meaningful way. Perhaps that’s down to me, but in our current economic climate, I have to say, the humanities don’t particularly provide the skills to do it either. We need science and maths to survive and thrive given the ways things are now (which earlier philosophers knew!). Having gone down the humanities path, I can say, there’s not much worthwhile there. There might be something, but not a lot. Aspects of it may help to guide, but in truth it’s more about debating round and round in circles and questioning ideas, their meaning and never really knowing anything. I need applied knowledge. I’m getting older and I’m getting tired. I wasn’t ‘smart enough to be an acamedic’ so now I labour. I would very much like a job where I could apply my mind. The humanities haven’t given me it.

  8. albert wright says:

    The choice of subjects at A level and deciding to go to University and what subjects to study are decisions quite a lot of people later regret. Alex, you are not alone and I hear your pain.

    Many schools (and some parents) are either unaware or fail to inform us of the options available at age 16 and unaware or fail to point out the advantages of some of these options rather than going to University.

    More needs to be done to raise awareness on these issues and provide better information.

    You seem to agree you liked the subjects you studied but are disappointed that they have not helped you in the job market.

    I am not sure when you graduated or what age you are, but today there is plenty of information now available to indicate that the subjects you studied (and possibly the specific University you attended) may not have been the right ones likely to deliver a high income in the job market.

    I wish you success with your switch to science subjects.

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