British academy

Benefits of an Education in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

What are the benefits of an academic education in the arts, humanities and social sciences?

Summary of main findings:

The arts, humanities and social sciences

  • attract at an increasing rate highly motivated students investing in their own future
  • give career benefits to individuals broadly comparable to those from other (often more expensive) subjects
  • offer a very favourable social rate of return on public investment
  • contribute importantly to lifelong learning needs
  • enhance the lives of individuals
  • assist the formation of critical minds to bear on a wide range of crucial issues, resulting in a flourishing public culture, committed to respect for knowledge and intelligent debate
  • encourage values and skills which sustain participatory democracy and responsible government.

The place of the arts, humanities and social sciences in higher education

129. Student numbers The numbers graduating in the UK grew steadily during the 1980s and accelerated further in the following decade, more than doubling between 1989 and 1998. The recruitment of undergraduates and postgraduates to study subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences has been buoyant. Figures drawn from HESA show that the number of first-year full-time first degree students in the arts, humanities and social sciences increased by 16 per cent in the period from 1994/95 to 2001/2002, compared to an increase for all other subjects of 8 per cent. In 2001/2002 53 per cent of all first-year full-time students were studying first degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Table 2 Numbers of first-year full-time students undertaking first degrees

% change

Arts, humanities and social sciences




Science and Engineering








Source: HESA

Similarly, figures from HESA show that the number of all first-year full-time students studying for a postgraduate qualification in the arts, humanities and social sciences rose sharply in the period from 1994/95 to 2001/2002.

Table 3 Numbers of first-year full-time postgraduates

% change

Arts, humanities and social sciences







Science and Technology







Source: HESA

It is clear that the arts, humanities and social sciences have played an important part in the drive to increase student numbers entering higher education, and reflect these young peoples' positive views on the value of an arts, humanities and social science basis for their future careers.

131. The recruitment of non-UK students in the humanities and social sciences Table 4 shows that 48 per cent of all first-year and continuing students (undergraduate and postgraduate) in 2001/2002 were studying subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences. These disciplines attracted a significant proportion, far greater than the average, of non-UK students, suggesting that these disciplines are held in high esteem overseas. Indeed, 58 per cent of all overseas students were studying subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Table 4 The number and domicile of students in the arts, humanities and social sciences in 2001/2002

  All HE students (first- year and continuing)
Other EU

Arts, humanities and social sciences










% total





Source: HESA data

The ability of the humanities and social sciences to attract such large numbers of overseas students to study in the UK has clear economic, social and cultural benefits, some of them of enduring significance. For instance, former overseas students will often act as 'ambassadors' for the UK once they have completed their studies and returned home, by promoting the UK in their home country and encouraging business links and trade.

132. The size of the academic community The number of academic staff, however, has not kept pace with the rise in student numbers over the last decade. Pressures on staff have increased as staff student ratios have risen steadily. Table 5 shows figures for the numbers of full and part-time academic staff in the arts, humanities and social sciences.44

Table 5 Full and part-time numbers of academic staff


Arts, humanities and social sciences










% total





Source: HESA

133. Figures from the OECD show that the UK's ratio of staff to students in all subjects is much lower than that of other nations such as Japan and USA, and that as a result the UK is ranked in the bottom five of the 25 OECD nations. This suggests that while teaching in the UK is very good value, there is a real risk that we will be rendering ourselves less competitive as regards quality. A recent report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) stated:45 'To ensure the UK continues to evolve a diverse range of higher education that is truly world-class while increasing participation levels requires substantial additional resources. The UK cannot continue to get world-class higher education "on the cheap".'

134. The costs of teaching are much lower in the arts, humanities and social sciences compared to the sciences. Table 6 below sets out the Higher Education Funding Council for England's (HEFCE) prices for each of its four subject groups. The majority of subjects within the arts, humanities and social sciences fall within the lowest of these price groups, price group D, whilst a large number of programmes within science and technology fall within price group B.

Table 6 The cost weights and rates set by the HEFCE for teaching in 2003/04

Price group Description Cost weight Rates for each price group for 2003/04


The clinical stages of medicine and dentistry courses and veterinary science




Laboratory-based subjects (science, pre-clinical stages of medicine and dentistry, engineering and technology)




Subjects with a studio, laboratory or fieldwork element




All other subjects



Source: HESA

Again, these figures should be seen in an international context. OECD figures show that the UK spent only 0.6 per cent of GDP on the core services of higher education in 2000 against 2.26 per cent by the USA and 0.96 per cent46 as the mean of OECD countries.

Career prospects

135. The variety of subjects within the arts, humanities and social sciences means that different subjects will relate to employment in different ways. Graduates of subjects such as law, economics and business studies will often enter employment that has a clear and direct link to their subject of study. The starting salaries that these graduates can command are often high. For other subjects within the arts, humanities and social sciences, the link may be less direct and the transition from graduation to employment may be longer and more complex. But graduates with a non-occupation-specific degree are suitable for a wide variety of employment and are less pressurised to find work that exactly fits their training because they have skills that are applicable to a large number of different sectors.

136. Research has shown that UK graduates in 'non-vocational' subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences have much better prospects than their counterparts in other EU countries because UK employers recognise that these graduates have developed skills that are applicable to a wide variety of careers. The Institute for Employment Studies has also found evidence of an increase in and broadening of the skills needed within occupations. It believes that employers are looking for a flexible and responsive workforce which can meet often ill-defined challenges and customer needs, and that employers will increasingly seek to recruit people with the right non-subjectbased attributes. Analyses of graduate vacancies show that around 50 per cent of all graduate jobs do not specify a degree subject.47

137. It has repeatedly been stressed that graduates have to be able to articulate their skills and aptitudes to employers. It has also been argued that academics in many subjects falling within the arts, humanities and social sciences are not always aware of the extent to which the skills that graduates gain whilst studying for their degree are valued by employers. A pilot study undertaken last year by the CIHE examined employers' perceptions of such skills in three areas (English; Engineering; Hospitality, Tourism and Sport), and the extent to which these were reflected in the benchmark statements48 published by the QAA. The study49 showed that a number of the respondents believed that studying English developed qualities that were not listed in the benchmarking statements: persuasiveness, conceptual thinking and confidence.

138. Graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences enter very diverse employment sectors. A recent report50 found that among all the graduates with first degrees in 1999 and 2000, 20 per cent of humanities graduates were working in education, 19 per cent in finance and real estate, 11 per cent in public administration, and 10 per cent in publishing, media and the cultural services sector. 25 per cent of social science graduates were working in health care and social work, 22 per cent were in finance and real estate, 14 per cent in public administration and 11 per cent in education.

139. It is, however, inherently difficult to assess the outcomes of increasingly diverse programmes and institutions of higher education. Degrees relate to employment in different ways. As noted above (see paragraph 136), it may take longer for graduates with less obviously vocational degrees to take up graduate level jobs or they may have an initial period of employment after graduation. In addition, both short and longer-term changes in the economic climate can affect the demand for graduates in specific areas.

140. Most of the data on graduate employment are collected six months after graduation. But these data are not good indicators of long-term prospects. Studies of long-term career paths tend to show a convergence in the levels of occupational attainment obtained by all graduates regardless of subject studied. For example, Figure 1 shows that the occupational attainment of graduates in the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences is not markedly dissimilar.

Figure 1 Socio-economic groups of graduates in 1999-2000

141. It may take a little time for graduates in some subjects to establish themselves in their fields. HESA's first destination statistics may be deceptive when they reveal that the number of people who could earn a living as writers, artists, designers, musicians is static, and that current graduates are not fully employed. Several longitudinal destination studies of the careers of graduates in art and design and music have shown that in the longer run a high proportion establish careers in these fields. One longitudinal destination study51 conducted by fifteen art and design institutions found that after two years 80 per cent of the cohort surveyed had established themselves in their chosen field. Two-thirds worked for small to medium enterprises, with half involved at some point in a form of self-employment, including freelance and project contracted work, as well as business start-up which often created employment opportunities for others.

142. Graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences achieve leading roles in public life. History, for example, is the third most popular subject studied by the main board directors of the FTSE top 100 companies. Currently, seventeen of the twenty-one Cabinet Ministers hold degrees in subjects falling wholly within the arts, humanities and social sciences. Dr John Reid who has a PhD in History and is now Secretary of State for Health, formerly Northern Ireland Secretary, has been quoted as saying, when he was in Northern Ireland, that History presented a context and a perspective on one of the longest-running conflicts in European history - 'if you have some interest in the history of Ireland, it certainly helps you to appreciate why some of the present problems seem intractable to those on the outside'. Indeed, historians in this field such as Professor Roy Foster, Professor Marianne Elliott and Professor Paul Bew have sought to show the nuance and uncertainty of much that had previously been taken as predetermined in the Anglo-Irish relationship, and the points at which things could have gone differently: also, the immobilisation into national myth of situations that were, at the time, fluid, and the way that contingency, muddle and ineptness were often represented later as deliberate malevolence.

The financial benefits for the individual

143. The report published in October 2003 by the CIHE, The Value of Higher Education, reported that OECD figures52 showed that UK graduates enjoyed the highest financial returns of any OECD country. The value of an arts, humanities and social science degree is considerable both to the individual as well as to society. We recognise that measuring this is difficult. Care has to be taken when considering the findings of research into graduate earnings. Certain professions, such as teaching and nursing, are not known for high levels of pay. It should also be remembered that financial advantage is not the only or main reward associated with graduate employment. Expectations of employment with regard to salary vary according to the subject, gender and type of institution. For example, the proportion of education graduates who believed that their degree had enabled them to earn a good income was much higher than the comparable proportions for those who had graduated in maths and computing, engineering and medicine.53 There is also a direct link between gender and earnings, with men consistently earning more than women, regardless of the subject studied. A high proportion of students in the humanities and social sciences are female: in 1999/2000, 62 per cent of all first-year full time students on first degree programmes in languages, humanities, social, economic and political studies, and law were female.

144. The reviewing committee considered two analyses on the financial and the social rates of return on a degree qualification.54 The first - the financial rates of return to the individual - measured the gross hourly earnings gap in percentage form. The second - the social rates of return - measured the real rate of return for society on its financial investment in different degree subjects. The findings show that the differential between the financial and social rates of return for graduates in the sciences as compared to those in the humanities and social sciences is minor.

145. Financial rates of return The aim of this kind of analysis is to compare the earnings of individuals with degrees with the earnings of 'similar' individuals with 2+ A levels but without a degree. The extent to which the former exceeds the latter is then taken to be the 'consequence' of possessing a degree. Much research has been undertaken in order to ascertain whether this method overstates the 'true' consequences because people who pass their A levels and go on to university may be, on average, cleverer than those who pass their A levels but do not proceed to higher education. By and large, the conclusion of this research is that the method described does not overstate the 'true' returns.

146. Some earnings gaps These are based on regressions undertaken with UK Labour Force Survey data for England and Wales, 1993-99. The samples consist of those with 2+ A levels with controls for marital status, age, age2, race, union membership, health and region. Degrees have been divided into two main groups, science (maths, natural science, engineering) and humanities/social science (accountancy, business, economics, humanities, languages, law, other social sciences). Other subjects controlled for are medicine, nursing, architecture, education and other. The results are in Table 7.

Table 7 Percentage earnings gaps

Degree subject




Humanities/Social sciences



Note: These are the gaps relative to those with 2+ A levels. They are reasonably precisely estimated, the standard errors being around 4.

147. Women with a science degree will, on average, earn 41 per cent more, per hour worked, than a woman with 2+ A levels but no degree, controlling for the list of variables reported above, and the comparable figure for the humanities and social sciences is 39 per cent. The figures in Table 8 show how these numbers differ between those working in the private sector and those working in the public sector.

Table 8 Percentage earnings gaps

Degree subject






Humanities/Social sciences





Note: These are the gaps relative to those with 2+ A levels. They are reasonably precisely estimated, the standard errors being around 4.

148. The numbers in Tables 7 and 8 reveal that in all cases there is a substantial earnings differential between those with degrees and those with 2+ A levels. The differential is somewhat larger for men than women and substantially larger in the private sector than in the public sector, in part because conditions of service (pensions, retirement age etc) are rather better in the latter. The differential is slightly higher for those with science degrees but remains very much in the same order of magnitude.

The economic benefits for society of an academic education in the arts, humanities and social sciences

149. Economic success is increasingly dependent on having a large pool of people in the workforce capable of thinking about and analysing new problems, developing creative solutions and implementing them. 'Every single person in business needs the ability to change, the self confidence to learn new things and the capacity for overview - Its breadth of vision, the ability to understand all the influences at work - that holds the key'.55 Furthermore, the knowledge economy requires that its citizens have a broad range of knowledge. Professor Quah said: 'Skilled, discerning consumers and increased levels of broad based education - for encouraging improved uses of technology, for raising labour productivity, for pushing back the frontiers of science and technology - are what will drive economic growth, one way or another'.

150. The UK economy is moving from one that is based in the industrial sector to one that is dominated by the service sector: in 2000, the traditional manufacturing and agricultural production occupations accounted for less than 15 per cent of all employment. Many of the most versatile people in the economy are coming from the arts, humanities and social sciences because the skills of analysis, research and presentation acquired by graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences can be applied in a wide variety of nondiscipline-specific areas.

The social rates of return

151. The idea of a social rate of return is to capture the real rate of return on a pound invested by the government in the provision of higher education. The benefits consist of the higher pre-tax earnings accruing to graduates of the higher education system relative to those non-graduates who are eligible for higher education on leaving school (2+ A levels). These benefits include pension and national insurance costs paid by employers and take account of the differential unemployment rates faced by the two groups and the fact that non-graduates start earning three or more years earlier except for 'vacation' earnings. The costs include the direct costs of higher education provision per student adjusted for costs allocated to research and take account of wastage rates. These are differentiated by subject.

152. Rates of return computed on this basis are reported in Belfield et al (1997),56 Appendix B, Table 1, and refer to 1985 graduates. Social rates of return by subject are reported in Table 9. The findings show that the real rate of return is well above the risk-free real borrowing rate faced by either the government or households (on secured debt) which is of the order of 3 or 4 per cent. The social rates of return also differ very little across subjects, indicating that the lower earnings gap generated by a humanities degree relative to an engineering degree, for example, is effectively offset by its lower cost.

Table 9 Social real rates of return (%), by subject

Degree subject
Social rate of return







Social sciences




Notes: (i) The data are taken from the HEFCE survey of 1985 graduates augmented by the General Household Survey; (ii) Graduates are assumed to have a 4% unemployment rate and to work 10 weeks per year when at university at 80% of the non-graduate wage. Non-graduates are assumed to have an 8% unemployment rate.

The role played by the arts, humanities and social sciences in the promotion of lifelong learning

153. Lifelong learning is crucial for a productive society. Government has identified it as a key objective. The arts, humanities and social sciences have an important role to play by encouraging the acquisition of skills and personal development that contribute to the developing cultural life of the nation. The White Paper on Higher Education stated that 'Lifelong learning implies a fundamental shift from a "once in a lifetime" approach to higher education to one of educational progression linked to a process of continuous personal and professional development'. It is now recognised that adults should be enabled to return periodically to learning throughout their lifetimes, if the challenges of the knowledge society are to be met. Furthermore, recent changes in the pattern of professional employment and retirement have meant that the UK has a younger retired population, many in their early to mid-50s, as physically and mentally vigorous as those in full employment. All the predictions for demographic change in the UK point to a significant growth in the older population and a decline in the younger population. The Henley Centre predicts that the age groups 45-54 and 55 -64 will increase in the period from 2000 to 2010 by 17.8% and 28% respectively.

154. The arts, humanities and social sciences within higher education play an important role in sustaining the lifelong learning needs of individuals, professional groups and employers through the provision of a range of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programmes. For example, Birkbeck's School of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics provides tailormade training to meet the needs of staff at HM Treasury. Topics included markets in action, consumer choice, information problems, risk and uncertainty and so on. It has also provided bespoke training for staff at the Governmental Department for International Development (DFID), HM Customs and Excise and the Bank of England.

155. A high proportion of mature students undertake academic qualifications in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Figures from UCAS for 2002 entry show that 54 per cent of all applicants aged 30 and over wanted to undertake an undergraduate qualification in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Similarly, data from the DfES on the subject of GCSE and GCE A level qualifications undertaken by mature people show that 70 per cent of them were in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The demand is also illustrated by the fact that subjects such as art, history, literature, music, cultural studies, the performing arts and archaeology have become increasingly popular with the media, particularly television, as well as film and theatre.

The Open University has a long-standing relationship with the BBC. In November 2002, the two organisations signed their fifth agreement which aimed to expand the university's general educational presence on peak time BBC TV, marking a move away from the tradition of broadcasting specific course programmes for OU students towards inspiring a wider general public to learn. The arts and humanities are central to OU programming. For example, the series Renaissance Secrets was broadcast at peak time and attracted audiences up to 3 million.

156. These activities contribute to the nation's social and economic well-being in a variety of ways. Recent findings have drawn attention to the health benefits of continued learning through life, especially in the later years, and point up the positive effects for quality of life, lessening dependency and reducing care costs. In addition, many of these people go on to contribute their time and acquired knowledge to a variety of voluntary, unpaid functions: National Trust guides, Citizens' Advice Bureaux, social services of various kinds, the Museum Education Service, festival boards, school boards and university councils and so on.

The non-material value of a qualification in the arts, humanities and social sciences

157. There is a danger that the pressure that has been exerted in recent years by policy-makers for subjects to show their 'relevance', as well as clear and direct links to economic well-being fails to exploit the wider benefits of academic study. Freedom to ask challenging questions, regardless of immediate 'relevance' is essential to any intellectual discipline. It is also a feature of arts, humanities and social science subjects which attract students of high calibre, develops their analytical skills and promotes original thought. We should not, therefore, lose sight of the other wider benefits of higher education for both the individual and for society.

158. Engagement with the study of the subjects falling within the arts, humanities and social sciences contributes vitally to the cultural life and health of the nation. It is not just that the subjects are themselves of absorbing interest and are life-enhancing to individual citizens, but that they help in the formation and training of well-informed, culturally aware critical minds which can be brought to bear on diverse crucial issues. They provide a framework for the advancement of understanding of our own and other cultures and societies, past and present, and promote informed reflection and decision-making on the wide range of challenging choices - cultural, social, political and economic - confronting society.

159. The true well-being of the nation depends on a flourishing public culture based on respect for knowledge, understanding of the use of evidence, and commitment to intelligent debate. The active and disciplined study of the arts, humanities and social sciences, driven by the spirit of trained enquiry and the aim of achieving deeper understanding, has a major part to play. Participatory democracy and responsible government draw heavily on the values promoted and skills inculcated by the study of arts, humanities and social sciences.

160. That students well understand these arguments is clear from the buoyant demand for qualifications in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The results of a survey of graduates57 about whether their qualification had enabled them to become a widely-educated person showed that graduates in languages, humanities, arts and law ranked themselves most highly in this respect. Similarly, the results of the OST's Survey of Postgraduate Study Intentions showed that personal development was seen by final-year undergraduates as the single most important factor influencing whether or not they undertook doctoral study.

161. But above all there is the personal fulfilment that derives from an active, enquiring mind. Arts, humanities and social science are all centred in the life and culture of human beings, a continuing source of productive fascination to such a mind.


  1. HESA collects data on the departmental cost centres in which academics are working. There are 57 departmental cost centres, of which thirteen cover subjects in the arts, humanities and social science: psychology and behavioural sciences; catering and hospitality management; geography; social studies; librarianship, communication and media studies; design and creative arts; education; language based studies; humanities; French, Spanish and German modern languages; other modern languages and archaeology. These categories are far more broadly defined than the subject categories used for student records, and cannot be broken down any further. As a result, the data will include some academics working in areas that fall outside the subject scope of the review. [return to text]
  2. The Value of Higher Education, CIHE, October 2003. [return to text]
  3. Ibid. [return to text]
  4. Analysis of advertisements in the graduate vacancy publication Prospects Today. [return to text]
  5. Benchmarking groups were established for individual subjects, to outline the learning outcomes of first degrees in specific subjects. The statements represent general expectations about the standards for the award of qualifications at a given level. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has published 43 benchmark statements. The benchmarking groups have also identified subject and generic skills that they expected graduates to have obtained during their studies. [return to text]
  6. CIHE extracted the competences outlined in the benchmark statements for these three subjects, and it sought the views of its members on the extent to which they agreed with the skills identified by the benchmarking groups. The CIHE received responses from 26 of its employer members who between them typically recruit around 6,000 graduates a year. [return to text]
  7. Report by Sin Yi Cheung on graduate employability, 2001. [return to text]
  8. Blackwell A and Harvey L, Destinations and Reflections: careers of British art, craft and design graduates. Birmingham: University for Central England, 1999. [return to text]
  9. Education at a Glance, OECD, 2002. [return to text]
  10. A finding of Moving On, Graduate careers three years after graduation. [return to text]
  11. Professor Stephen Nickell, FBA, provided the two analyses on the financial and social rates of return. [return to text]
  12. Sir John Harvey Jones quoted in All Our Futures, Creativity, Culture and Education, National Advisory Council on Creative Education, 2000. [return to text]
  13. Belfield C R, Bullock A, Chevalier A N, Fielding A, Sibert W S and Thomas H R, Mapping the Careers of Highly Qualified Workers, HEFCE Research Series, University of Birmingham, 1997. [return to text]
  14. Moving On: Graduate careers three years after graduation. [return to text]