The skills debate needs more oohs and AHSS*

There was something a little underwhelming about the launch this week of a British Academy report on skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). To coincide with a royal engagement feels like misfortune; but to be overshadowed by the government’s underwhelming industrial strategy white paper looks more like miscalculation.

Making an AHSS of ourselves

The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is the product of a project designed to map the skills that students develop across these subject-areas. It lists them under three headings: ‘communication and collaboration’, ‘research and analysis’, and ‘attitudes and behaviours’. For those of us working in these areas and keen to promote them, this is all hugely valuable.

Yet it’s hard not to set this report against the (albeit muted) fanfare attendant upon the industrial strategy. If the white paper represents the continued ascendancy of STEM – that canny little acronym that has taken such hold on the imaginations of politicians – The Right Skills feels rather more awkward. I mean, the acronym, AHSS, is just wrong any which way you look at it. Is it, do you think, to be pronounced ‘ass’, ‘arse’ or ‘aahs’? Then there’s the challenge of representing in one report the sheer breadth of disciplines, from economics through to dance.

As a result, The Right Skills feels to me like only one piece of a bigger, necessary project. As it stands it has the air of a sensible and well-mannered English person speaking politely in the corner of a crowded room. I’d suggest there’s more to be said: about the place of these disciplines in the world, and how they are taught.

The AHSS end of the world

By global standards, the AHSS disciplines in the UK are doing pretty well. I appreciate that’s not always how it feels to early-career academics, nor indeed right now to my friends at Southampton, but we remain well placed. This is partly because of a quirk in the fees system, which makes it advantageous for universities to increase their AHSS courses. But more profoundly I would argue that there is a remarkably solid appreciation – among the public, and also among employers – of what we pain-in-the-AHSS’s do as researchers and teachers.

But we can’t for a minute take this for granted. Beyond the UK, the arts and humanities have been in a state of contraction for some time. Try looking at the data kept in the USA on undergraduate choices of majors; try checking out the size of the average English department at otherwise huge Australian universities. And within the UK, applications are trending downwards in some key disciplines. Brexit also presents reasons to be nervous, especially since the UK’s world-leading services sector, which has traditionally employed so many AHSS-hole graduates, is in line to take a very big hit. And to date the only services strategy seems to involve a lot of waving goodbye.

In this context, The Right Skills helps, but leaves me wanting more. I want a ‘AHSS skills’ poster for my office door. I want a collection of quotes from employers to use at open days. I want to hear politicians endorsing our disciplines with the same fervour they tend to reserve for STEM. And I really, really want a better acronym than AHSS, if that wasn’t quite clear enough…

The AHSS end of the curriculum

When I first started teaching in the UK, a fellow immigrant took me aside and explained that the English single-honours degree model is wonderful because it takes students straight out of school and prepares them to enter research degrees. Even seventeen years ago that sounded a little myopic. Today, with all the emphasis on skills and graduate destinations, it is almost unsayable; yet many of our basic programme structures remain the same.

David Willetts is worried about the level of specialisation in the UK education system: he calls in his new book for both A-Level reform and the introduction of four-year degrees. But the trends are pulling in the other direction. In recent years I’ve been following data produced by surveying A level colleges, which demonstrates how funding constraints are forcing them to cut their range of subjects, and also to limit students to three subjects. Many of those students will, quite reasonably, stick within their comfort zones when choosing degrees, thus compounding the specialisation effect.

The Right Skills is onto this in principle. Its final chapter, ‘Are AHSS graduates fit for the future?’, recommends that universities encourage the development of ‘a mindset of innovation and enterprise’, stresses the value of ‘language, digital and data skills’, and promotes interdisciplinary learning. Precisely; but it would be helpful to have some case-studies of good practice, and maybe a rather more direct challenge to universities. By way of comparison, a useful American report more specifically identifies eight skill-sets that make liberal arts students more employable, and at higher salaries: IT networking and support, sales, computer programming, data analysis and management, marketing, graphic design, general business, and social media. In the UK Nesta and Pearson have also produced useful data-driven research about 2030 employment.

One reason why a greater sense of challenge might be needed is the in-built conservatism in our structures. Teaching single honours programmes is easy and cost-effective, they make sense in terms of workload planning and departmental budgeting. Several years ago I led the development of a Liberal Arts programme at Exeter, which had requirements of language-study, quantitative methods, and group-research. The programme is flourishing, but some of those requirements have been whittled away: partly for administrative reasons, and partly because applicants – trained as they are into conservative choices – were telling us they weren’t comfortable with them.


There are lots of reasons to celebrate AHSS skills. Those of us who teach in these areas know this, since we see our students progressing into excellent jobs. But there is also cause for anxiety, and reasons to promote some challenging reforms. As a next step, it would be good to see the British Academy tackling these issues – at which point I will stop being such a pain in the AHSS.

* Originally published at

A one-way ticket to New DLHE*

Farewell, then, Old DLHE; your passing is unlikely to be mourned.

The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which delivers ‘graduate outcomes’ figures for league tables, has reached the final stages of a review. The consultation document, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency this week, has an air of finality. The proposed new arrangements will affect students currently in their second of year of three-year undergraduate degrees.

So for those of us whose departments are judged by DLHE results – which means, basically, all UK academics – it’s worth pausing to consider the proposed changes and what impact they might have. There might even be ways in which we can influence the first results, due for publication in January 2020.


Fifteen months is the new six months

The principle of Old DLHE was to ask graduates what they were doing on one day, roughly six months after their graduation. As the consultation document notes, this was always controversial, and had arguably become increasingly problematic as a result of ‘the changed structure of the graduate jobs market and expectations of longer transitions into a settled pattern of activity’. Hence New DLHE proposes to ask graduates what they were doing in one week, roughly fifteen months after graduation.

This feels right, and should produce more reliable data. Notably, there’s a provision that will still capture those on twelve-month MA programmes (‘graduates who are surveyed in the September – November period will be asked about the activities they were undertaking during the first week in September’). While these programmes are not always the best way to ensure long-term employability, this commitment will be welcome in the sector.


Show us the money

As well as surveying the levels of graduate employment, New DLHE will gather information on salaries. The methods for this investigation remain just a little bit of a work in progress, but will involve a combination of self-declaration in survey-interviews and figures drawn from existing national datasets.

We’re not unfamiliar with these kind of data. They tend to show that if you study economics at the LSE you’re going to make money, and if you study ceramics you’re probably going to make rather less. For most disciplines in between, meanwhile, the average figures tend to be more closely bunched.

So I’d put this in the category of: ‘bound to happen, nothing much to be done about it’. My only concern would be the potential uses of the figures. Given the accepted correlation, regardless of one’s degree, between social background and future earnings, one hopes they are never worked into league tables.


But tell us how you really feel about it

The most interesting aspect of the proposals is the inclusion of qualitative questions: or, as the consultation describes them, ‘“graduate voice” measures [designed] to capture alternative ways of measuring graduate success’. These questions will include:

  • Why did you decide to take up your job?
  • My current activity fits with my future plans (agree or disagree)
  • My current activity is meaningful and important to me (agree or disagree
  • I am using what I learned during my studies in my current activity (agree or disagree)

This promises to give us some fascinating data, reflecting in particular on the ways in which graduates understand the place of their degrees in their unfolding lives. Universities will also have the opportunity to add further optional questions. A year ago I facetiously suggested calibrating DLHE with a national happiness index; HEFCE has opted instead for ‘meaningfulness’.

These questions might also prompt academics to think afresh about how we help our students make connections between their learning and their future careers. If Old DLHE has encouraged a utilitarian approach to employability – just getting graduates into jobs – this is altogether more idealistic.

But how will these questions be made to matter? I’ll be watching to see whether responses end up being factored into league tables. If this doesn’t happen – and it’s not obvious to see how it would – then their effect will be limited. They could even come to be seen as more trouble than they’re worth.


The rise of the entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is the new black on UK campuses. Hence the predictability that the definition of ‘graduate employment’ in New DLHE would be adjusted accordingly. It will aim ‘to capture graduates pursuing non-traditional career-paths, such as those developing creative portfolions or setting up businesses’.

That will be welcomed in particular by academics in creative disciplines, who have argued that Old DLHE fails to recognize the more dynamic and entrepreneurial routes taken by many of their graduates. But the calibration with earnings data may well cut in the other direction, exposing areas where ‘entrepreneurship’ often boils down to taking bar-work while struggling in vain to get a creative career off the ground.


Will it work?

Kind of. Response rates of 70% per provider are predicted on the basis that they do something similar in Australia and get 39% – but, hey, we’ll do it better. That smacks just a little of wishful thinking. I’ll also be curious to see whether some of the idealism – and length – gets whittled away somewhere along the line. But hopefully this is pretty much what we will get; it looks like a better destination than Old DLHE.

What will they do when they grow up? Employability and the academic experience

The imminence of a Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK is placing our existing bundle of metrics under fresh scrutiny. Hence recent attention to employability, measured now by the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, which tracks down graduates six months after they have received their degrees.

We’re all familiar with DLHE data: in the coming weeks I, like thousands of other academics across the country, will be quoting figures at open days. I’ve also been to plenty of meetings at which ‘employability strategy’ has been code for ‘getting the right graduates to complete DLHE’.

Johnny Rich, meanwhile, is the latest of a long line of critics to argue that DLHE is a poor proxy for a measure of employability. Rich’s timely report, Employability: Degrees of Value, argues that graduate employment is a very different thing from employability. Moreover, focus on the former, since it produces our familiar metric, can distract us from the more important labour required by the latter. This seems to me worth some thought.


  1. Employability & apple pie

So how should we define employability? Here are two existing efforts, taken from a Higher Education Academy report (p. 6):

  • ‘A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make individuals more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.’ (Knight & Yorke, 2003)
  • ‘The qualities, skills and understandings a university community agrees its students would desirably develop during their time at the institution and, consequently, shape the contribution they are able to make to their profession and as a citizen.’ (Bowden, et al., 2000)

And then there’s Rich’s definition, boiled down into three terms: ‘knowledge, skills and social capital’.

There’s a degree of commonality across these definitions, and a degree of beauty to them as well. Thinking about employability, they teach us, is thinking about helping students get where they want to go. And Rich, in particular, is very good on ‘soft skills’, powerfully shifting the focus away from those skills that appear to lead directly to jobs, and onto ‘the transferable skills that employers say time and again that they want’.

But there’s also a degree of fuzziness. The notion of ‘employability’ risks collapsing into ‘all that’s kind of good about education’. Indeed for Rich ‘employability’ is roughly equivalent to ‘learning gain’: another notoriously woolly concept. So this is great – honestly, it is – but it doesn’t necessarily help when I’m trying to convince sceptical parents that an English degree is the right way forward for Sophie. Nor does it necessarily help me identify concrete steps forward in improving ‘employability’ within my department.


  1. ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’

Anyone who has been a personal tutor has experienced excruciating ‘what do you want to do when you leave?’ discussions. Actually, I think they serve a purpose, if only to remind students that we actually care. But regardless of whether the student has any ideas: what the hell do we know? Academics are not careers advisors, and tend to be united by our limited range of life experience.

A focus on (soft) skills, however, opens avenues for more creative interactions. One outstanding example, cited by Rich, is Durham’s ‘Skills to Succeed’ initiative. While many universities, including my own, have tried skills audits in different forms, this looks notably sophisticated, guiding students sensibly through the rationale for the process. And the real genius is the timing. Durham’s students complete the audit before they arrive. Surely this is precisely the right transitional moment for them to reflect upon where they are, and what they want to achieve at university.


  1. ‘No jobs in the humanities’

We’re all well aware of an instrumentalist discourse that positions the humanities as hopelessly impractical, an unaffordable luxury in an age of austerity. Actually this is much more prevalent in the US and parts of Asia than in the UK, but never too far away.

In this context, Rich’s table of soft skills (right) is a blessing, since it speaks so

Employability: Degrees of Value, pp. 22-3

directly to much of what we do in the humanities. Yet it also poses questions. Might we be doing more – or doing what we do differently – in order to stretch our students that little bit more?


I’m a big advocate of interdisciplinarity, and I like models (Durham again, also Warwick)  which prioritize opportunities for students to step out of single-honours comfort-zones. University affords precious opportunities to develop new skills – languages, numeracy, entrepreneurship, and so forth – and too often our structures mitigate against them. Likewise, interdisciplinary programmes, intelligently designed, can directly address Rich’s list. ‘Liberal arts’ can mean a range of different things in the UK, but at its best it signifies a calculated interdisciplinary stretch.

And there are also lessons for the ways we teach and assess. Some careful thought addressing how to develop these soft skills might pull us in new directions: maybe away, in some programmes, from so many essays and exams; maybe also away from a reliance on lectures.



But I can’t help feeling, for all that is obviously right about Rich’s arguments, that something is missing. Indeed I’ve read a lot of commentary on employability and graduate employment data recently, and I’m still waiting for someone to propose a realistic alternative to DLHE. And, thinking politically, we want something; we can’t ignore the value that DLHE’s figures – demonstrating as they do the value that degrees add – give the sector.

What else to measure? Presumably stretching the DLHE deadline from six months wellbeing1after graduation to, say, 2-5 years, would produce richer data. Some of the best-equipped graduates, in terms of soft skills, take time to settle. Learning gain? They’re working on it. Maybe the best alternative of all, meanwhile, would be the ‘happiness index’, or national well-being data, that David Cameron endorsed in younger days. But, seriously, are we going to be able to justify more funding for English degrees on the grounds they make graduates happier? I’d love to think so …

‘Too many graduates spoil the economy’

Are universities producing too many graduates? There’s been some really interesting debate about this question over the past week, prompted by a report from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), titled Over-qualification and Skills Mismatch in the Graduate Labour Market.

From many angles, it’s difficult to see how such a deftly titled publication could attract such attention. Maybe, in part, that’s an August thing. But it’s also more than that, because the politics of the argument are combustible, especially in the wake of the decision to remove the cap on student numbers. For, if it can be demonstrated that ‘too many’ students are being produced, and if this decision is costing the state money (in the form of fees that will never be repaid), there will be a strong argument in favour of revisiting that decision.

The report is challenging, and a couple of the responses (from HEFCE and The Conversation) have also been well worth reading. In simple economic terms – which are effectively the only terms in which the debate has been conducted – there are some strong points on each side, and inevitably squabbles over the validity of the data being deployed. (The CIPD report, notably, relies heavily on a survey of employee perceptions of the value of their degrees. That’s a new one for me.)

But I’m not an economist, so I don’t want to get involved in those arguments. My points here are more about what the economics leaves out.

      It’s more than the economy, stupid

The fundamental preconception underlying the report has not, to my knowledge, been commented on by anyone. But it’s a curious one: the big idea, as I understand it, is that the ideal state will produce just enough graduates for the available quantity of graduate-level employment. Any more than that will constitute ‘over-production’, and will be a waste of resources. An efficient economy, properly geared towards maximizing productivity, won’t waste money on unnecessary training.

There’s some genuinely compelling material here, particularly the assault on the belief – dominant over the past decade or so – that if we produce more graduates the economy will inevitably produce more graduate-level jobs to accommodate them. But my point here is the preconception about the point of education. As the report puts it: ‘The bottom line is to ask how much more cheaply could an individual have entered a particular job and been just as productive had they not attended university but got there by some other route.’ Such an individual would, by definitionk, be ‘over-educated’.

So my question is: might education have values beyond economic productivity? What about the social value of education? What about its potential to produce better citizens, better voters, better parents, better carers, better volunteers, better artists, and so forth? That line of questioning can veer towards snobbery, of course. I wouldn’t claim for a minute that one needs a university education to be good in any of those roles, but I absolutely would argue that, on average, graduates gain advantages that are economically unmeasurable. And society is better as a result.

I’m sensitive about such arguments, perhaps, because we hear a lot of this sort of discourse in attacks on the humanities. It’s the old utilitarian line: what’s an English degree good for? I suspect that even many of our graduates might struggle to articulate a response to that sort of question, given the baggage that it tends to carry about with it. But I believe they’re better equipped for their working lives, as well as their lives in general, as a result of their education. The ‘graduate premium’ (if you’re not familiar with it, google it) is not just measurable in financial terms.

      What about aspiration?

Reading this report, I couldn’t help thinking about the Victorian line on education for the working classes, which went something like: ‘If t’lad’s only goin’ down t’pit, what good’s learnin’?’ (At least, that’s roughly how I imagine them speaking up north in the nineteenth century.) What’s the point, in other words, of educating someone more than they’re worth?

I don’t want to get silly about this; I’m quite happy to accept that higher education just doesn’t work for quite a lot of people, so it’s crucial that other training and development options are available. I’m also happy enough to consider arguments over what might constitute a healthy HE participation rate. But I’m worried about the potential politics of a report that is blind to any benefits other than the strictly economic. It smacks just a little of ‘keeping ’em in their places’.

Aspiration, I’d argue, is productive. It will admittedly leave many people dissatisfied, when their goals run into brick-wall realities, but it will fuel competition and drive creativity. In the 1590s – to go way back – there were worries about the number of under-employed graduates in London. They grumbled and drank and fought; however, they also produced some of the most powerful and enduring literature in the English language. The best among them famously hadn’t gone to university at all, but the culture he inhabited was shaped by learning.

And one final question: who do you think might find themselves being told not to bother about higher education because there’s not enough graduate employment? It won’t be my nice middle-class white daughters, that’s for sure.

      Politics and politics

So there’s a politics to this, though it’s worth stressing that it doesn’t obviously fit a left-right party-political divide. It’s the Conservatives, after all, who have lifted the cap on student numbers. But there’s a politics to the economic – and only economic – model. And I think this is worth confronting.