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Humanities education is a UK strength: New report shows it is a mistake to set up a Humanities vs STEM contest

  • 30 March 2023

A new report published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Russell Group’s Pro-Vice-Chancellors / Deans of Arts and Humanities Network shows Humanities subjects are playing a major role in education and the workplace.

The main findings from the report, The Humanities in the UK Today: What’s Going On? (HEPI Report 159, attached), include:

  • This is a globally leading sector. In 2020, UK Humanities research activity was 49% higher than the global average, outperforming all other disciplinary research areas in the UK.
  • The UK also has 19 universities in the global top 100 in the Times Higher Education 2023 rankings for Arts and Humanities, including four in the top 10, and 19 in the top 100 in the 2022 QS World Rankings.
  • The number of UK students choosing Humanities subjects suggests they continue to recognise the value of degrees that fit them not narrowly for any one particular career, but which develop the talents and skills needed for a wide range of opportunities.
  • There is a strong correlation between the skills of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) graduates and key skills valued by employers.
  • Eight of the 10 fastest growing sectors employ more AHSS graduates than graduates of other disciplines. A Humanities training may not pay back most quickly in the workforce, but it is likely to give good resilience and longevity for longer term prospects.
  • Only 14% of employers say specific degree subjects are a selection criterion; for most employers, it is the level of education that is important, not the particular discipline.

The report also highlights the more recent ways that Arts and Humanities are taught and represented – working in a much more interdisciplinary way with the Natural Sciences and other STEM disciplines, allowing students to prepare for an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

Examples are provided where Humanities have supported different societal challenges including during the pandemic, supporting cultures and communities to withstand the pressures of lockdown, helping society to make sense of and narrate the experience of the pandemic, explain the benefits of vaccination and, crucially, shape the process of recovery.

The areas of mental health, addressing loneliness of young people, big issues of technology and ensuring accuracy in media and communications are also given as examples of where the insights and methodologies of the Humanities have deepened and enhanced understanding and improved interventions.

Lead author, Professor Marion Thain, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Culture and Technology at King’s College London, said:

The UK’s work in the Humanities is one of this country’s most distinctive and potent academic strengths.

By better connecting Humanities disciplines and STEM subjects, we can create maximum impact for society, bringing multi-disciplinary perspectives to bear on the key challenges of our times.

Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy, said: 

This excellent report adds to the growing bank of evidence demonstrating the value of education and training in the Humanities. From History and English to Theology and Anthropology, these disciplines furnish individuals with a wide range of skills and knowledge that can be applied in a variety of roles across multiple sectors and industries. As a result, these graduates are among the most employable, resilient and highly sought-after in the jobs market.

Crucially, the report also echoes the British Academy’s own findings around interdisciplinarity and the importance of thinking of SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects as two sides of the same coin, rather than as adversaries. Only by drawing on all talents can we solve the many challenges facing society.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

The study of the Humanities, with its pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around us, continues to have deep relevance in uncertain times. Indeed, if we are to meet our ambitions to create a dynamic, resilient and innovative economy, we will need a breadth of skills and knowledge, and the country’s world-leading strength in Humanities should be at the heart of this. 

The Government’s ambitions for R&D must recognise the central role Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences will play in harnessing emerging technologies like AI [Artificial Intellligence] for the benefit of society, as well as driving innovation in business and public services. And as part of a truly interdisciplinary approach, the Humanities will be critical to forging our response to the big global challenges we face like net zero, from understanding the impacts across society to formulating policies and communicating with the public.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

It’s hard to conceive of a successful future for the UK without thriving Arts and Humanities departments.

Humanities graduates have the transferable skills that employers are crying out for and which computers cannot easily replicate, while research in the humanities is essential to tackling global challenges like climate change and pandemics.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. It is UK-wide, independent and non-partisan, and it is funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions as well as through events.
  2. HEPI’s previous report on the Humanities in the UK, The Humanities in Modern Britain: Challenges and Opportunities (HEPI Report 141, September 2021) by Dr Gabriel Roberts, is available here.

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