This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Kate Daubney PFHEA FRSA, Director of The Careers Group, University of London. Kate is on Twitter @careerampersand.
This blog is in response to the recent HEPI report on the Humanities and is the third to respond in a series of blogs following Nick Hillman, HEPI Director and Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Having wondered 30 years ago what I could actually do with my Music degree, and then having similar conversations with my own students as a Music lecturer at two UK universities, I am more than familiar with the perceived difficulties in career choice and employability development that can emerge from studying a humanities degree. Gabriel Roberts’ recent HEPI report outlines established concerns in this respect, but it also highlights a key gap which is yet to be successfully bridged: how can we enable humanities graduates to recognise the innate employability value of their programme of choice?
UK graduate employers are largely agnostic about their recruits’ subject of study. Annual research by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) reveals a fairly steady proportion of 80 to 85 per cent of recruiters who have no subject preference. While measurable graduate outcomes for humanities are sometimes lower than in other disciplines, the ISE’s annual development survey often highlights significant gaps in graduate entrants’ transferable skills. This indicates a much wider issue for all graduates which, in my experience, is more challenging for humanities’ graduates: the ability to identify and articulate which transferable skills they have developed through their subject study.
I want to be clear that I am not referring to the core skills of teaching and learning, of group presentations, essay writing and organisation. Nor do I mean the attributes – behaviours, qualities, values – which are also important to employers. What I am describing are the innate transferable skills of the subject. The skills which are developed because of what a subject is, not how it is taught: in the case of the humanities, this would include the ability to construct and deconstruct arguments from different points of view, the ability to construct narratives from evidence or interpretation, the critical and contextual analysis of text and language to name just a few. So I would dispute Gabriel Roberts’ and Lyonette et al’s contention (Roberts, p.30) that humanities are in a weaker position when it comes to employability in our digital age. The analytical skills of the humanities provide an excellent foundation for learning the technological, digital and data skills that might be required. But we have been inadequate as educators in making that clear to learners and students and articulating what those skills actually are, so they realise what opportunities those skills offer. We have consequently also disadvantaged employers.
My published research at both higher education and pre-18 levels involved manual textual analysis of curriculum documentation and surfaced a rich taxonomy of transferable skills which are somewhat obscurely embedded in that documentation. They are there, but we don’t have the language to talk about them. So the high standard of careers and employability education in UK universities would be not only enhanced but fundamentally reimagined if we talked about curriculum as not just knowledge but also the development of a suite of transferable skills and if we gave students better language to articulate them. These are the same skills that employers want, and they immediately answer the question of the value of a humanities degree in employability terms. A student or pre-18 learner who can say ‘My history degree has developed my ability to look at evidence in detail’ is the same person who can consider how they might do well in careers as diverse as tax audit, data science or criminal investigation by using that same skill to develop new specialist and transferable skills.
While I recognise Gabriel Roberts’ plea to address the employability needs of pre-18 and higher education humanities learners, I think the solution is not to add something in as he does in Proposal Two. Instead, we need to do better at enabling learners to see how their choices of subject keep their career options open because of the huge range of skills they already develop, and we need to do more to articulate how those skills are a foundation for more diverse career choices including digital ones. Curriculum documentation reveals virtually nothing of those skills in any structured way, and that makes it incredibly difficult for educators to realise more value from what they are already doing. By rewriting curriculum documentation using skills taxonomies like the one I have developed, we could make it much easier for educators to signpost those skills as they are developing them in their learners every day. The imperative to get more value for learners from what educators are already doing has to be a priority when they are already overstretched.
But it also avoids the pitfall of trying to decide which employability skills should be added in, because so many valuable skills are already there. And when we recognise that a student in higher education might be developing up to 100 distinctly different transferable skills in their humanities degree, and we consider the huge range of skills developed in a pre-18 learner studying English, Maths and Design and Technology for example, the exciting problem that we then encounter is how to make that information accessible and meaningful without overwhelming learners and students. That is a topic of my current research and practice.
My work with universities across the UK, Europe and Australia indicates that surfacing the employability value of curriculum through using a richer language of transferable skills in learning outcomes and curriculum structures can work effectively. And when I speak to teachers in schools, they engage immediately with the idea that there is a way to present the value of qualifications beyond something academic or as a pathway to university which is not right for every learner. Taking an approach like this both at pre-18 and in higher education would address Gabriel Roberts’ concerns about attraction into humanities’ study and the employability of graduates. Because a graduate who can say to an employer ‘I loved my humanities A Level/degree and these are the skills I developed which make me a good fit for this role’ is more likely to have good career readiness and more stable and successful career choices in the short and longer term.