Humanities graduates shine in UK business world, study shows

In an article in the Financial Times, 11/07/13, Helen Warrell, reports on a new study showing that around 20 per cent of humanities graduates were working in growth-driving sectors such as finance and management at the peak of the UK’s economic boom.

Students of history, philosophy and English may be weary of being told they frittered away their university years on a useless degree. But they can finally answer back after new research found that about 20 per cent of humanities graduates were working in growth-driving sectors such as finance and management at the peak of the UK’s economic boom.

The Oxford university study – which analysed the employment destinations of 11,000 of its own humanities graduates from 1960 to 1989 – demonstrates that these students in fact “predict” growth trends in the economy and began entering the City before the wider workforce moved into financial sector jobs.

The analysis comes as humanities departments are under pressure to justify their contribution to economic growth. Even before the coalition’s austerity drive, Margaret Thatcher, who read chemistry at Oxford, was disparaging of those who had studied arts subjects. During one visit to her alma mater, she is said to have exclaimed to a student of Ancient Norse: “What a luxury!”

However, Oxford’s study showed that subjects such as classics and modern languages may be more useful than once thought. Prominent humanities graduates in the City include Charlotte Hogg (history), appointed last month as chief operations officer of the Bank of England, Sir Philip Hampton (English), chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland and Paul Manduca (modern languages), chairman of Prudential.

Professor Shearer West, head of humanities at the University of Oxford, said her report demonstrated that arts graduates had proven “highly responsive to national economic needs” and employers were “desperate” for candidates with succinct communication skills and a capacity for critical analysis.

“Anyone who has written a critical analysis of Plato’s Republic in less than 1,000 words, or defended their interpretation of the French Revolution under questioning from a top historian in a class or tutorial, will know that studying the humanities gives you an excellent grounding in all of these skills,” she said.

Oxford hopes that other universities will use the same methodology to provide a wider analysis of arts graduates across the UK.

Will Dawkins, head of UK board practice at headhunter Spencer Stuart, said demand for humanities graduates reflected the value of “emotional intelligence as well as cognitive skill” among graduates.

But Mr Dawkins, a Cambridge English graduate, warned students not to “go overboard” in humanities mania. “You do need to be numerate if you are to lead a large financial organisation, which means that if you have done a humanities degree then ideally you would have gone on to do an accountancy qualification or an MBA as well,” he said.

Guy Monson, managing partner at investment firm Sarasin & Partners, which helped fund the research, dismissed the suggestion of a link between the influx of humanities graduates into the City and the subsequent financial crisis. “It’s difficult to prove any correlation,” he said.

Click here to read the article © The Financial Times Limited 2013.