The Value of Humanities

There has been much discussion recently about value for money in higher education and, in particular, the value of Humanities degrees in the current economic climate. In a recent article entitled ‘Humanities as Vocation’ on the popular higher education blog WonkHE, Dr Jon Wilson, Vice-Dean Education in Arts and Humanities at KCL, noted the importance for Humanities degrees in making a clear connection to real-world employment:

As many humanities scholars are doing, we should also build our subjects’ practical connection with the real world into our teaching…..Those links are being made in different ways in universities now. They might involve creating communities of practice, where alumni in related fields discuss and help shape the curriculum and career choices of current students.[1]

This point strikes me as being ever-more important and working with alumni is an increasing focus for Humanities at Exeter. A quick look at the College’s Alumni Profiles gives an indication of the huge variety of different careers Humanities’ graduates hold and increasing numbers are willing to share the benefits of their experience with current students. Students can access valuable knowledge for a variety of different careers through engagement with willing alumni, who often give up their time to act both as advisors to current students and also to get more directly involved in the delivery of the curriculum.

One such example of a course that embeds learning into the curriculum is the Liberal Arts ‘Think Tank’ module. Think Tank asks students to work in small groups to tackle a key social, political, business or economic challenge. Challenges are posed by Humanities’ alumni who have gone on to work in variety of different careers. The skills that students develop through their degree – in-depth research, creative thinking, and professional presentation to name just a few – are utilised to come up with solutions that the students present back to their alumni mentor, lecturers, and peers at the end of the module. Students get the benefit of working directly with these industry experts throughout the project whilst simultaneously learning how former Exeter students have used their degrees in their future careers.

I graduated from the Exeter’s Classics and Ancient History Department in 2013 and volunteered to set a Think Tank challenge for the first time in 2017. Having worked in a number of different Higher Education roles, I’ve spent the past two years working in the Exeter’s own Global Partnerships Team as a Business Partner focused on Humanities and Social Sciences. Global Partnerships is responsible for Exeter’s engagement with other universities all over the world, forging new connections with international partners that will enhance our education and research. It’s a role I find fast-paced, challenging, and (usually) very rewarding.

I was eager to take part in Think Tank for a number of reasons, not least because I was intrigued to see what solutions the students might propose to some of the challenges the UK higher education sector is currently facing. I therefore asked the students to devise a strategy for how a UK university like Exeter should work on the international stage to meet the challenges facing the higher education sector over the next 10 years. They had to think about some of the big questions facing higher education at the moment – how do we prepare for the changes that Brexit will bring? What new opportunities for research funding are out there and how can we make the most of them? How can we continue to attract the best international students from around the world? Other alumni gave students the opportunity to work on challenges as diverse as responding to the divisions laid bare by the Grenfell Fire tragedy or devising new campaigns for the RNLI.

I was pleasantly surprised when eight students chose to work on the challenge I had set and when they presented their findings after eight weeks of work, I was struck by the depth of their research and the originality of aspects of their thinking. So impressed was I, that I pointed my students in the direction of a paid internship opportunity some of my colleagues were advertising to support the delivery of a major international conference. The experiences gleaned through ‘Think Tank’ helped one of the students get the job, despite a very competitive field.

Exeter can make a strong argument that Humanities degrees offer students great preparation for a wide variety of careers; in addition to glancing through our alumni profiles, recent information from the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education (DHLE) survey and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data suggests that Exeter’s Humanities’ graduates tend to perform well after they leave the College. My experiences have convinced me that alumni engagement has a key part to play in this picture; not only is it good for the students, but it’s great for alumni to be able to harness the enthusiasm and skills of the students they work with.

[1] https://wonkhe.com/blogs/humanities-as-vocation/

Written Dr James Smith, Assistant Head of Global Partnerships, University of Exeter, Streatham Campus