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Why arts, humanities and social science students are key to our future

Blog • • Professor Sir Ian Diamond FBA

The question every arts, humanities and social sciences student hears fairly regularly, ‘what are you going to do with that?’, has become all the more important in the last few days. Suggestions that degrees in these subjects are somehow ‘less valuable’ have resurfaced in light of the Government’s review of post-18 education funding.

But a recent British Academy project I chaired showed that such sentiments were, quite simply, wrong. Arts, humanities and social sciences graduates make valuable contributions right across our society. The breadth is truly vast ranging from web designers for banks, and press officers for major corporations, through to the civil service, teachers, social workers, lawyers, accountants and economists, or throughout our booming creative industries and cultural and heritage sectors to global leaders and senior politicians.

Successful graduate

Our research found that 58% of Chief Executives of FTSE 100 Index Companies have studied arts, humanities and social sciences, either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Arts, humanities and social sciences is a broad church, and what our graduates go on to do is correspondingly diverse.

Our research found that 58% of Chief Executives of FTSE 100 Index Companies have studied arts, humanities and social sciences, either at undergraduate or postgraduate level.

A set of core skills 

We found this diversity is grounded in a set of core skills which all arts, humanities and social sciences graduates develop, and that these skills are in demand from employers as well as central to a cohesive well-performing society. Arts, humanities and social science graduates learn how to communicate and work with others, how to define a question and analyse the evidence to answer it, and how to work independently to solve problems with creativity. Such skills have never been more vital in a society where we need to collaborate across global boundaries, be engaged and active citizens who can identify ‘fake news’ and make evidence-based decisions and adapt to make the most of emerging technologies in an ethical way. 

Business meeting analysing data

Employers need individuals who can interpret data, but also explain to others what it means. Design, marketing and human relations are critical to industrial and commercial success and are dependent on understanding what it means to be human – something fundamental to the study of the arts, humanities and social sciences. And while our society is already multicultural; in a post-Brexit world, our international relations skills around trade and security are only set to become more complex. We need people with language skills, but also with intercultural understanding and global awareness, who can negotiate with tact and diplomacy.

Equipping students for the future

Technological, socio-environmental, economic and demographic changes are transforming the way we work. New jobs are constantly being created and existing roles evolve. The natures of the arts, humanities and social sciences means that students learn to deal with ambiguity, where there may be many ‘right’ answers. They have a positive, open outlook and are willing to try new approaches, all crucial attributes in a world where they will have to adapt to changing circumstances and demands and be comfortable navigating an uncertain future.

The labour market needs graduates who can think on their feet and be innovative in a global economic environment, exploiting opportunities and helping to grow businesses and economies. There is a place for intrapreneurs alongside entrepreneurs, able to generate new ideas and turn them into workable solutions through creativity and a willingness to take risks, for application within an existing business or as a new venture. 

Creative process

Our report showed that the attitudes developed by studying the arts, humanities and social sciences provide an ideal basis for graduates to be able to take the initiative and explore new horizons. And that commitment, desire and ability to constantly improve their own performance is reflected in the number of graduates from those subjects who go on to become global leaders, chief executives of top performing companies and politicians. It is testament to their resilience, flexibility and ability to upskill.

So, when faced with the question, ‘what are you going to do with that?’, students and parents alike should feel secure in the knowledge that an arts, humanities or social science degree will equip them with transferable skills and behaviours that will be prized in our future economy.

We don’t know what the jobs of tomorrow will look like, or where they will be. But understanding human behaviour and society is surely the best way to make the most of the changes coming our way.  


Professor Sir Ian Diamond FBA is Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Aberdeen. He led the British Academy’s recent work on the skills of arts, humanities and social science graduates.

Image credits:
istock.com/andresr
istock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
istock.com/UberImages

Blog • • Professor Sir Ian Diamond FBA

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