Why STEM Practitioners Need to Stand Up for Arts, Humanities and the Social Sciences

by Nicholas Chancellor

Image by imagii from Pixabay 

A recent narrative which has proved popular with Tory politicians and their supporters (see for example: this announcement) is that students are being duped by ‘low value’ degrees in arts, humanities and social sciences. The idea is that these degree programs lead to hapless students taking jobs with lower starting salaries and comparatively worse prospects, when they could have done much better by going into ‘high value’ degrees, often in STEM (science technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. So much is wrong with this approach. Not only does it devalue a fundamental and important element of scholarship and education, which provides important and complementary tools to those that STEM degrees provide, but even the basic math behind this argument is wrong. 

Before looking into the mathematics, it is worth briefly mentioning the flaws in the now prevalent ‘value-for-money’ framing of education, and the corollary that this value helps social mobility. For example it has been argued by Tomlinson in 2018 that a more appropriate framing is to think of education as a public good, rather than simply looking at economic value to individuals. Furthermore, whilst we might expect a university education to further social mobility for working class students, work by Boliver in 2017 has shown that this idea doesn’t really play out in the real world as hoped. In fact Boden and Nedeva argued in 2010 that mass education focused on employability actually contributes to a two-tiered education system which could reduce social mobility.

‘Value’: The Data

Even if we accept the (awful and highly simplistic) premise that the ‘value’ of a degree should be equated to its average starting salary and employment prospects, the differences are often slight and many highly paid jobs actually require a humanities degree (as this article points out). The importance of creative arts degrees has been argued here in terms of the value generated by training high-profile media figures through these degrees. A quick inspection of Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data confirms that, while STEM degrees do pay slightly better on average, the differences are not huge, and it is certainly not true that all STEM degrees end in better pay. For example, the data from 2017-18 show that after rounding, the salary for medium skilled jobs occupied by language degree holders is the same as for physical science.1 Low skilled jobs in languages pay the same as low skilled jobs  in all STEM subjects. In fact using HESA’s definition of all ‘science’ or ‘non-science’ subjects, high skilled graduates in ‘science’ subjects only make £1,000 more per year, and low and medium skilled graduates make the same in science and non-science degrees.  The best way to illustrate this point is to plot a histogram (fig. 1) of the HESA data counting degree programs at each graduate salary level for each skill band.

Fig 1. Graduate starting salaries. Source: HESA.

There are indeed high skilled science careers which pay graduates much better than average. However, there is not a complete separation between science and non-science degrees: there are  degrees to which HESA has not assigned the ‘science’ marker that pay graduates more than some with the science marker. Rather, given that the average difference between STEM and non-STEM graduates for highly skilled jobs is only £1,000, these data are likely skewed by a few very highly paid graduates. For medium skilled jobs the difference between programs is much smaller and for low skilled jobs, pay is much more bunched—but higher payed employees actually graduate from programs with a non-STEM marker. 

One could claim that these data are not representative because they don’t show how many graduates in each subject are in low, medium or high skilled professions. For example, strictly speaking I haven’t yet shown that there aren’t many more graduates entering highly skilled jobs in those with the science marker. Fortunately, HESA make the total aggregate data available without dividing by skill bands (fig. 2). These data are again consistent with those I showed previously: science jobs do pay better, but only slightly and the data do not support a narrative based on a drastic difference between the two. Whilst it would be easy to get lost in a deep analysis of these data, that is not the point of this post. The key point I am making here is that these data do not support the simplified picture that non-STEM degrees are low value and that graduates are unable to generate good salaries from them.

Fig. 2. Starting salaries by earnings band. Source: HESA.

Turning Pedestals into Solidarity

The damage which the narrative of ‘Micky Mouse degrees leading to un- or under-employment’ does can already be seen playing out, for example, with the closure of the archaeology department at Sheffield, closure of the history, languages and translations department at Aston, and redundancies at Chester. So what can be done about it? It is tempting as practitioners of STEM subjects to declare that this is not our problem and stay out of it, or (worse still) to capitalize on the misfortune of these subjects to try to better our own circumstances. Some may see these trends as an unstoppable tide which is not worth fighting. However, the internal logic of the ‘low value’ degree argument actually means that both academic staff working in STEM (and practitioners of STEM in general) are ideally placed to help counter these arguments. The concept of ‘low value’ degrees and occupations only works if other degrees and occupations are attributed ‘high value’. Every time these arguments are made the people making them unavoidably put these ‘high value’ occupations on a pedestal. 

The circular reasoning of ‘low-value degrees’ holds that practitioners of these subjects must either be dishonest (trying to scam hapless students) or poor decision makers (tricked into joining a low value profession themselves). From either position, acolytes of the ‘low value’ logic can dismiss these practitioners’ arguments without engaging with them. The people teaching and working in ‘high-value’ subjects have, by the same logic, made good choices and are advancing society by helping students into more valuable professions. When physical scientists and engineers (for example) stand in solidarity with arts and humanities colleagues, scorning the concept of low-value degrees with clear data-driven arguments as outlined above, they undermine the accusation that our arts colleagues are foolish or dishonest. When colleagues in STEM add their voices of support, it is much harder to justify restructures and cuts to the arts, social sciences and humanities.

Complementarity

I myself am formally trained in physics and am well aware of science cultures which elevate the value of our own disciplines and lead to complacency in the face of significant changes in education policy. The following is drawn from my own experience, as a physicist (and engineer) by training.

It is very tempting to think that the skills I have learned can act as a stand in for anything else. Randall Monroe even created an xkcd comic about this mindset. I’ve often encountered an attitude of superiority towards the arts, humanities and social sciences: I studied at a specialist engineering institution, where anything outside of STEM tended to be dismissed as effectively useless (and easy, of course).

The truth is that while we in STEM do have many useful and valuable skills, they do not substitute for those taught in arts, humanities, and social sciences. While we can understand the mathematics behind complex systems, our training involves (for example) almost no persuasive writing.2 While we may be well trained in understanding how physical systems behave, we learn little about how to understand why people act as they do, or how to persuade people to act otherwise. The best example from recent experience is that medical science can create a vaccine amazingly quickly, but cannot convince people to take it.

We need to embrace the fact that we don’t know everything, and that the ‘physicists’ approach’ of just treating and the world as abstract and mathematical won’t always work. More importantly, we need to challenge the idea that mathematical sciences alone can solve pressing problems such as like climate justice. Just as I wouldn’t necessarily expect a historian to be able to solve complex differential equations,3 we shouldn’t expect a physicist or data scientist to be able to fully analyse how society functions, or to understand how to communicate a clear message to the general population without it being misconstrued. By checking our own egos and having a bit of humility about our place in the university and in the world, we can effectively challenge the attitude that arts, humanities, and social sciences are a waste of time, in different ways to the arguments made by our colleagues in those disciplines. And, from a more selfish perspective, academic departments are stronger together: while political winds currently favour STEM subjects right now, we are not immune to cuts (for example, Mathematics at Leicester, Biological Sciences at Leeds). If we protect arts, humanities, and social sciences now, our colleagues will protect us in the future.

Nicholas Chancellor is a researcher in the Physics Department at Durham University.

Nick would like to thank Emma Kennedy, Ruth Holliday, and Ben Pope for editing, contributing ideas, and providing references; Mariya Ivancheva and Bijan Parsia for contributing ideas and references; and numerous other people in the Commons for useful discussions and general support.

Please sign this UCU petition against cuts to government funding for the arts in Higher Education: https://www.megaphone.org.uk/petitions/save-the-arts-from-boris-johnson-s-cuts.

Footnotes:

  1. For simplicity and to avoid being accused of ‘cherry picking’, I use the data from all countries, all providers, and for which ’employment is an activity’. The numbers may change slightly if you change these markers, but the main conclusion does not.
  2. This fact becomes both really obvious and really annoying when trying to write a blog post.
  3. I am sure there are some historians who do know how to do this, probably some who are better at it than I am, but you wouldn’t expect it based solely on the profession.
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