Graduation scene at Oxford


New research by Oxford University reveals how studying a humanities degree at university gives young people vital skills which benefit them throughout their careers.

Published: 22 June 2023



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The report, called ‘The Value of the Humanities’, used an innovative methodology to understand how humanities graduates have fared over their whole careers – not just at a fixed point in time after graduation. 

In the largest study of its kind, the report followed the career destinations of over 9,000 Oxford humanities graduates aged between 21 and 54 who entered the job market between 2000 and 2019, cross-referenced with UK government data on graduate outcomes and salaries. This was combined with in-depth interviews with around 100 alumni and current students, and interviews with employers from many sectors.  

Further interviews with employers were carried out after the onset of COVID-19 and the impact it has had on the economy and the labour market to test how the report’s findings held up in a post-pandemic world.

The report suggests that the pandemic has accelerated trends towards automation, digitalisation and flexible modes of working, and the resilience of humanities graduates makes them particularly well suited to navigate this changing environment. Recent developments in AI such as ChatGPT have only advanced predictions about imminent changes to the workplace brought by technology.

The report was commissioned by Oxford University’s Humanities Division and its lead author was Dr James Robson of the Oxford University’s Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE). It comes shortly after a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute which quantified the strength of the humanities in the UK.

Professor Dan Grimley, Head of Humanities at Oxford University, said: 'This report confirms what I and so many humanities graduates will already recognise: that the skills and experiences conferred by studying a humanities subject can transform their working life, their life as a whole, and the world around them.

'Students, graduates and employers noted that the resilience and adaptability developed during a humanities degree is particularly useful during big changes in the labour market – whether that’s triggered by a global financial crisis, changes caused by the rise of automation and AI technologies, or indeed a global pandemic. 

'I often hear young people saying that they would love to continue studying music or languages or history or classics at A-level and beyond, but they fear it would compromise their ability to get an impactful job. I hope this report will convince them – and their parents and teachers – that they can continue studying the humanities subject they love and at the same time develop skills which employers report they are valuing more and more.' 

Dame Emma Walmsley, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline who studied Classics and Modern Languages at Oxford, said: 'Being a humanities student at Oxford was foundational - to the curiosity, reserves of courage, and appetite for connectivity I have relied on deeply in life so far.'

The report’s key findings include: 

1) Humanities graduates develop resilience, flexibility and skills to adapt to challenging and changing labour markets. 

Employers interviewed for the report highlighted that disruption caused by COVID-19 and increased automation and digitalisation will significantly change the nature of work in the next 5-10 years. The report said the ‘skills related to human interaction, communication and negotiation’ learned while studying humanities will help them to meet future employer demands. This resilience helped graduates to cope and respond well to the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis. It seems set to have the same effect for graduates entering a post-COVID labour market characterised by increased digitalisation and remote working. 

2) Humanities careers open a path to success in a wide range of employment sectors. 

The business sector was the most common destination of humanities graduates (21%) over the period. 13% entered the legal profession and 13% went into the creative sector. There was a notable increase over time of graduates entering the ICT sector, particularly among women.  

3) The skills developed by studying a humanities degree, such as communication, creativity and working in a team, are ‘highly valued and sought out by employers’. 

Interviews with employers found they particularly valued the following traits in Humanities graduates: 

  • Critical thinking 
  • Strategic thinking  
  • An ability to synthesise and present complex information 
  • Empathy 
  • Creative problem-solving

This supports recent research by SKOPE and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council which revealed how business leaders in the UK see ‘narrative’ as an integral part of doing business in the 21st century. They found that being able to devise, craft and deliver a successful narrative is a ‘pre-requisite’ for senior executives and becoming increasingly necessary for employees at all levels. 

4) Humanities graduates benefit from subject-specific learning. 

As well as the more transferrable skills like communication, graduates interviewed in the report showed that they draw throughout their careers on the sense of self-formation and the deep understanding they gain through studying histories, languages, cultures and literature on a humanities course. 

5) Studying humanities helps graduates to make ‘wider contributions to society’. 

Many interviewees in the report said their degree has enabled them to make an essential contribution to addressing the major issues facing humanity, and informed their sense of public mission and commitment. This includes navigating ‘fake news’ and social media manipulation; climate change; energy needs; and the ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. 

6) Humanities graduates have high levels of job satisfaction and many said their primary motivation for studying their subject was not financial. 

The report found that studying humanities subjects had a ‘transformative impact’ on people’s identities and lives. Nonetheless, the average earnings of graduates assessed in the report were well above the national average, with History and Modern Languages graduates earning the most. 

Dr James Robson and his co-authors for the report concluded: 'These findings clearly show that Oxford Humanities graduates are successful at navigating the labour market and arev financially rewarded, but also see value as existing beyond measurable returns and linked with knowledge, personal development, individual agency, and public goods.  

'They highlight the need to take a more nuanced approach to analysing the value of degree subjects in order to take into account longer term career trajectories, individual agency within the labour market, the transformative power of knowledge, and broader public contributions of degrees within economic, social, and political discourses.'

The report makes recommendations to universities, employers and government to help young people make a transition into work: 

  • Offer support for a smooth transition into the workplace 
  • Provide internships, focused in particular on less advantaged students 
  • Support digital skills development and working in a team, and provide students with insights into the changing labour market. 

The report can be found here

Picture credit: Graduation Scene. University of Oxford/John Cairns