How Can Universities ‘Sell’ Arts & Humanities Degrees?

arts and humanities recruitment

The view that success in higher education for students and institutions alike is inextricably tied to the quantifiable outcomes – namely employability – has seemingly become entrenched to the point of becoming accepted wisdom. One consequence of this is that degrees seen as not offering a clear vocational narrative have suffered in terms of student numbers –  with prevailing attitudes exacerbated by the effects of the Great Recession.

Harvard College, for instance, has seen the number of students majoring in arts and humanities subjects decline from 22 to 14% over the course of a decade. At Stanford, the 15% of students focusing on these disciplines stands in sharp contrast to the 45% of faculty members in the university’s main undergraduate division who specialise in humanities subjects. But this trend isn’t limited to these elite institutions. An analysis from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences found that the proportion of undergraduate degrees awarded in humanities disciplines are at a record-low level in the US.

Pressure from above as well as below

We employ the US here as a bellwether; it certainly isn’t the only country to experience this trend (for example, in the UK, English has lost ground, though the narrative is more complex). Can we ascribe this simply to a more data-driven, career-focused generation voting with their feet? Only to an extent, as the pressure on these subjects comes from above as well as below, with governments tending to privilege the more overtly lucrative STEM disciplines. One of the most troubling recent examples comes from Japan, in which more than 50 universities announced planes to downsize or close departments in the humanities in response to governmental pressure to provide more vocational training.

“There is a belief that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are more valuable to a society and its economy, and that their study leads to greater employability,” confirms Elizabeth O’Connell, director of marketing at the New College of the Humanities in the UK. “In the UK this belief has been perpetuated by the elimination of state funding towards research in the arts and humanities.”

There is, however, no smoke without fire. Research from the Sutton Trust has found that arts and humanities graduates do indeed find it harder to find work in the UK, and that they will in all likelihood earn less. Georgetown CEW research shows similar statistics in the US.

O’Connell suggests that this might be too simplistic a view, particularly when it comes to a generation focused on finding fulfilment in their work: “In the current economic environment we find that it is parents who are particularly concerned about the employment options for their sons and daughters. These days most students recognise that the typical published statistics of the percentage of students in employment six months after graduation are too simplistic as they do not reflect whether these graduates are working in their desired field. This is critical, as the aspirations of this generation are more wide ranging than those of their parents; for many of them the ambition is no longer simply ‘to get a good job in a Fortune 500 company’.  While some applicants are still working towards the traditional graduate careers in finance, civil service, law or business, an increasing proportion of them wish to pursue their own entrepreneurship or follow less traditional paths.”

Perhaps in acknowledgement of the diverse potential of arts and humanities research, or perhaps as part of a defensive move to show that these subjects can take on STEM and business at their own game, we see the UK’s (somewhat decimated) Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) emphasising the potential commercial applications of research in the disciplines. A well-received video game called Dear Esther, which actually arose from an AHRC-funded project on the nature of narrative in video games, is used as a demonstration of this.

Businesses need arts & humanities skills

Showing that arts and humanities research can be monetised is not, however, the only way in which it can be demonstrated that scholarship of such disciplines can have comparable value to others. In times before the idea of the student as a consumer who can fairly expect an easily-measurable return on their investment became fixed, the difference in thinking produced by those who studied these disciplines was seen as a boon – and indeed one that would ultimately pay dividends in the employment market (albeit one less saturated by graduates).

Well, it seems that despite seemingly widespread consensus that this is no longer the case, employers do continue to value the mindset engendered by arts and humanities disciplines. Forbes notes, holding up Slack – founded by a philosophy graduate and a theatre graduate – as an example, that liberal arts thinking is in high demand in Silicon Valley. The argument is that while engineers will necessarily carry out the technical aspects of the work, the creative and, dare we say, human elements are the preserve of arts and humanities graduates.

As occurred with the automobile explosion of the 1920s, the article suggests, continuing advances in technology will create a host of jobs for those who are able to align the needs of technical innovation with the needs and desires of the market. Jobs in sales and education will grow rapidly says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while hiring levels of software engineers will remain relatively stable. To assume the global domination of tech means that only the technically minded will benefit is, therefore, short termism of the highest order. Policy makers, students, and universities would do well to take heed.

An article in U.S. News & World Report seconds this, noting that while it would not quite be right to say that liberal arts hiring was in rude health, the skills that we associate with these subjects – things like oral communication, critical thinking, creativity, intellectual curiosity and teamwork – are in high demand with employers across a wide range of industries. A survey of CEOs by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2013 also produced similar results, with respondents stating a belief that a modern liberal arts education creates more dynamic workers. Indeed, the report goes so far as to say that there is an overemphasis on STEM subjects, with the needs of business calling for more than technical expertise (though, sure, we wouldn’t get very far without that either).

“Organisations, even those that are science, finance or tech focused, require individuals who are trained to communicate, think critically, synthesize and analyse data; it is exactly these abilities which are developed through the study of the arts and humanities,” O’Connell reflects, echoing once more these findings.

In terms of outcomes for students, it might also be worth noting a 2014 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which argues that ‘attacks’ on liberal arts in favour of STEM subjects from policy makers and commentators were misguided and misleading. They found that, if we look a little further down the line, the salary levels and unemployment rates of arts and humanities graduates are actually very close to those of holders of professional degrees. The social services professions into which graduates of arts and humanities subjects disproportionately move are essential for the healthy functioning of society, the report adds, in case we needed any more arguments!

Not a choice between passions and careers

The challenge for universities then, is to convey this message to students and parents, who faced with a tough employment market, want to make a good, informed choice. That it is a tough choice is something institutions must face up to, says O’Connell. “Many students have a strong idea of what subject areas they might like to study before they start the process of selecting the universities to which they will apply. For many, this choice is driven by what they enjoy, but for others it is a case of what they believe will give them the greatest success after graduation. In the latter category, it may be that a student is wrestling between what they see as the logical decision of studying science versus their true interest which is a humanities subject such as history or English literature. For these students it is important to acknowledge their dilemma and explain how they might achieve their ambition by studying a humanities degree.”

In international markets, as is so often the case, one needs to persuade the family in addition to the student. “Increasingly with international recruitment, parents play a strong part in subject selection for their sons and daughters, and in those cases it is important to demonstrate examples of success in a wide range of fields as a result of studying the humanities.”

An unfashionable argument

To bring this article to a close, let’s consider one last viewpoint, that seems to be less fashionable in the 21st century (though one would hope that it still held some water with today’s youth – or else we’d have a cause for concern). And that is – what about the value of the arts in themselves, and taking a wider viewpoint, of scholarship for its own sake?

“Imagine a world with no art, literature, music, or history,” O’Connell says. Indeed, would that not that be a dull, and benighted place? The UK’s AHRC has recently released a report that looks at the value of arts and culture to society and the individual – something that we can all too easily forget in the sensory assault of employment figures and salary data. And if you’re looking for a more high-minded exploration of this argument, Adam Gopnik writes wonderfully about the point of English degrees in The New Yorker.

Perhaps we can finish on something a little more straightforward; a study conducted at Harvard, in which a leaving cohort of students was asked how satisfied they were with their degree. Who came out on top? Yep, that’s right, the highest levels of satisfaction were found among the arts and humanities graduates.

At the end of the day, that says something, doesn’t it?

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