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The arts and humanities: rejecting the zero-sum game

  • 21 June 2023
  • By Angeliki Lymberopoulou and Richard Marsden
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Senior Lecturer in Art History and Employability lead for the School of Arts and Humanities at the Open University, and Richard Marsden, Senior Lecturer in History and formerly Director of Teaching for the School of Arts and Humanities at the Open University.
  • The 2023 HEPI Annual Conference is taking place on Thursday in central London. In case you have forgotten to book a place, there is a very small handful of places left – more details are here.

Degree students up and down the country are finishing their final assessments before seeking to enter the workplace. Among them are thousands of arts and humanities students whose employment destinations will be many and varied. And that’s a good thing.

HEPI’s recent report The Humanities in the UK today: what’s going on (2023) is therefore very timely. Significantly, it emphasises the conclusions of the British Academy report Qualified for the Future (2020), which revealed that arts and humanities graduates have more career options and greater resilience within the workforce than those of many other disciplines.

We welcome these findings at The Open University (OU), where over 15,000 students are currently studying arts and humanities subjects. Our own internal research confirms that there is little difference between the career prospects of arts and humanities graduates compared to those qualifying in other subject areas. What disparity does exist, is largely the result of certain high-earning careers, such as medicine and associated professions, skewing the data for STEM subjects as a whole. 

The versatility of an arts and humanities education was underscored recently by the OU-sponsored session Arts & Humanities in the Creative Workplace at Creative UK’s 2023 Creative Coalitions festival. This event featured employers from publishing, visual communications, music, drama and the world of vlogging. The session highlighted the diverse opportunities open to arts and humanities graduates in the creative industries, as well as the value of arts-related skills in fields such as business, technology, communication and organisational leadership.

That diversity of opportunity has certainly delivered for many OU students. Rhiannon, for instance, left school at 16 and then embarked on an OU BA in Humanities and English Literature in her mid-20s. She now runs a successful marketing agency. Faye, meanwhile, used her experiences studying for an English Language degree at the OU as inspiration for developing self-published video games. These examples and many more show just how wide the vistas are for arts and humanities graduates. Indeed, as the British Academy’s Qualified for the Future report notes, in 2020 eight of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy employed more graduates from the arts, humanities and also social sciences than from any other disciplines. Such cross-sectoral synergies are of particular interest to the OU right now, as it gears up to welcome the Open College of the Arts to the OU family in summer 2023.

That said, the OU’s student body is much broader than those of the Russell Group institutions to which the HEPI report mentioned above primarily refers. Not only are we a flexible, distance-learning institution, but our open entry policy makes us an option for anyone with the desire to learn. Whilst the number of school-leavers studying with us is on the up, the OU’s student body is made up of all kinds of people taking up the opportunity for lifelong learning.

Among these are many who are already in employment, whose study in arts and humanities subjects may or may not provoke a career change. Many more OU arts and humanities students are in a more challenging position when it comes to entering the workforce because of disabilities, health conditions or caring responsibilities. Our deliberately broad definition of employability is therefore particularly applicable to the arts and humanities at the OU. It talks about ‘a set of capabilities and achievements that support students in developing their careers, raising their aspirations and enhancing their contribution to society’. At the OU, employability is about enabling students in all areas of their lives, including but not limited to paid work.

As HEPI’s Humanities in the UK report also notes, the arts and humanities have a vital role to play in supporting wellbeing. For Helen, an OU Classical Studies degree was a lifeline following the death of her husband. Army veteran Stuart, meanwhile, suffered life-changing injuries during a training exercise. He is now studying a BA in History with the OU in order to become a teacher. And Samantha uses the skills she acquired through an OU Creative Writing MA to combat the stigma of infertility which she and so many others have experienced.

Much of the current debate around the arts and humanities centres on their efficacy in producing economically active graduates. As the research cited above indicates, they do that very successfully. Yet these subjects have other roles to play as well. Yes, they equip students for success in the world of work – unequivocally so. But they also improve quality of life, enhance society, and produce informed and engaged citizens. Education is not a zero-sum game, forcing students to choose between economic security or cultural enrichment. The arts and humanities offer both.

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1 comment

  1. What is the main argument or viewpoint presented in the article regarding the arts and humanities and their relationship to the concept of a zero-sum game?

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