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Impact: Perceptions of Employability

In 2010 the Subject Centre produced International Students in History: A Comparative Study of First-Year Transition, 2009-2010 (M.H.Beals), which explored the attitudes of home and overseas students to key issues and experiences of their higher education. The survey included questions on student perceptions of skills and employability, with the key findings noted below.

[To view the full publication online, click on the title above.]


The Indirect Value of a History Degree

In the initial survey, students were asked about whether or not their history degree would assist them in obtaining employment after graduation, either indirectly or directly.Their open-ended responses do provide several insights into the perceptions of incoming students.

Indirect effects of a history degree were less clear to students. Although 157 of the 202 respondents felt that the degree would benefit their employment prospects, their reasons for believing so were vague at best.The most common response was that history provided important transferable skills followed by the fact that history was a respected degree, that a wide liberal arts education was intrinsically beneficial, and that any degree offered an advantage over secondary qualifications.

There were, however, significant differences between home and international students. Home students were far more likely to cite the reputation of the degree and transferable skills as the primary benefits of studying history. International students, conversely, were more likely to describe history as being crucial to a well-rounded view of the world. This may indicate a crucial difference in how history courses are “sold” to secondary students, either by university recruiters, secondary educators or the media.

Interestingly, only one international respondent noted that a British degree would demonstrate competency in English and only one other mentioned acquiring knowledge of another culture. In the latter case, he was referring to culture he was studying rather than that of Britain. Although obtaining a wider understanding of the world was often mentioned elsewhere, they did not readily associate cultural competencies with future employment.

First Year Perception of Transferable Skills

Skills Attributes Key abilities
  • Analytical Skills
  • Group Presentation Skills
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Interpretation Skills
  • Investigative Skills
  • Oral Communication Skills
  • Presentation Skills
  • Public Speaking Skills
  • Time-keeping Skills
  • Written Communication Skills
  • Has a Broad Perspective
  • Focused
  • Committed
  • Dedicated
  • Detailed oriented
  • Conscientious
  • Discursive
  • Organized
  • Intelligent
  • Creating reports
  • Creating written applications
  • Expressing oneself in interviews
  • Making evidence-informed judgements
  • Self-motivation
  • Working as part of a team
  • Working individually
  • Working with large amounts of information


The Direct Value of a History Degree

The second question posed particular difficulties for the respondents, as few appeared to understand what the term “directly” implied, and therefore took a wider view of the question than had originally been intended by the researcher. Nonetheless, several trends are apparent.

First, when one includes optimistic uncertainty—terms such as “hopefully” and “likely”— nearly two-thirds of respondents felt that their history degree would assist them in obtaining work after graduation. By far the most common responses for why it would assist them were that history provided:

  • transferable skills
  • direct experience for a history-related career
  • a respected degree
Often, the first and third reasons were given in conjunction with each other. Moreover,
a small number of respondents who felt the degree would not directly help them also mentioned transferable skills—deeming these indirect benefits of a history degree.
Interestingly, there was a tendency among under-26s to actually use the stock phrases transferable skills and respected degree in their answers. In the case of the former, a full third of younger respondents used the term, contrasted with only 2 mature students. More tellingly, not a single student over the age of 30 used either phrase. Likewise, students who had attended secondary school in the United Kingdom were far more likely to use the phrases than those who had studied elsewhere. As with the term spoon-feeding, this suggests that students have heard these terms used by secondary school staff or the media and have therefore placed particular value on obtaining them.

Reasons why the degree would not directly aid employment were more varied than reasons why it would.They included:

  • not wishing to pursue a history related career
  • the degree not being vocational in nature
  • an anti-arts bias in the job market
  • the need to combine the degree with vocational courses or a postgraduate degree first

There were a number of demographic trends in these results in regard to age, gender and nationality:

  • international students were far less likely to feel that their history degree would directly aid their job prospects
  • a comparable proportion of home and international students indicated that they were pursuing a career directly related to history
  • nearly twice the proportion of international students explicitly noted that they would not be pursuing a history career
  • those over 26 years old were more likely to be taking the degree either purely for the enjoyment of the subject or as a gateway to postgraduate study
  • female students were slightly more inclined to respond positively to the question than male students
  • female students were 5 times more likely to express an intention to pursue a career directly related to history, usually primary or secondary education

Take a look at ...

Public perceptions of the benefits of higher education (Ipsos MORI report Sept 2010)