Putting the humanities to work

Here’s a sentence you don’t see every day: one of the world’s most highly regarded universities is struggling to recruit for one of its flagship degrees.

Taking to inner-city London, academics from Oxford University have been on a mission to spark interest for reading Classics among sixth form college students. Members of the East End Classics Centre in Hackney have heard from their students that Oxford attendance is unattainable, ‘like going to Hogwarts’ according to one, and they are determined to change this perception by closing the gap between the material and the readers. The response seems to be overwhelming: students are keen to immerse themselves in ancient mythology and, what’s more, said they might do so at Oxford.

However, some of our Future of Britain research has found an unfortunate spanner in the works of this recruitment drive. Fascinating as the content may be, the fact remains that to spend 3 years learning about Homer, Zeus and terracotta pots is not seen to be financially viable for most. When it comes to submitting the application and taking on that loan, will students take the plunge?

49% of our Future of Britain research group believe that degrees are no longer a worthwhile investment. If they were to be worthwhile, it would be because they give students vocational skills that will soon pay back the cost of further education. With money increasingly in the minds of young people during their formative years – 28% of 16-24s are now driven to make more – this will naturally impact their course decisions, if they decide to attend University at all.

Having come fresh from a degree in Literature, I and my bank account can identify strongly with this idea, but there is some hope for me and for countless others in my shoes.

A recent study by Oxford University has examined the careers of some 11,000 of its own humanities graduates from 1960-1989 and seen that 20% had entered into and developed what are now major areas such as finance, law, and the media, ahead of government policy to back them.

These results are backed up by recruiters’ and head-hunters’ opinions that strong critical thinking and communication skills could prepare humanities graduates well for the business world. This view is borne out by the wide spread of degrees that have prepared various notable heads of business, very few of which correspond directly to their industry. Take, as one example, the English Literature MA who currently chairs the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Perhaps the questions we should ask next will address the new areas of growth in British business: independent and creative entrepreneurs that are bucking the graduate-scheme trend to pave their own way with skills and connections that were fostered during their University years.


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