The head of the humanities division at Oxford is Professor Shearer West. Oxford Today went to meet her to discuss a significant piece of research launched by Oxford on July 11th, Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact.

She concludes our discussion by explaining that she's “in the opportunity frame of mind” – meaning that the glass is half full, not half empty, for the humanities as a sector of higher education in the UK in 2013.

The point of the research is partly to pilot an approach to showing the economic impact of humanities students at a time when politicians are demanding evidence of impact; partly to show the impact, and partly to show qualitative evidence of why a degree in theology, philosophy, history, English or classics sets you up for a successful career, however variously defined.

The context of the research is as that which led Oxford Today to consider the plight of the humanities in a dedicated issue two years ago – Whither the Humanities: Uncovering a Global Crisis in our Midst – except that West prefers opportunities to crises. She draws on a Belgian colleague, who compares the humanities sector (and implicitly the language of ‘crisis’) to a Japanese cartoon character Calimero. You can Google it, but imagine a charming but hapless anthropomorphized chicken who walks around wearing half of his egg shell still on his head.

Humanities Graduates and the British Economy instead represents a muscular new plank in Oxford’s attempt to convince the world that its graduates have rich economic impact. Led by Dr Philip Kreager and paid for by a donor, the pioneering research tracks the careers of 11,000 Oxonians who matriculated from Oxford between 1960-89. The second half of the report gets into the subjective experience of a much smaller sample of 50 Oxonians, and is a qualitative attempt to explore the ‘impact’ made by humanities students from Oxford.

The top line result, to cut a long story short, is that an above average number of humanities graduates went into emergent sectors of no small relevance to the British economy, at a time when manufacturing was in decline and the service-oriented economy was ascendant: law, financial services management, literature, the arts and media.

The standout figure for me is management, which claimed 19.8 percent of the sample, or 2,233 of the 11,000. How much of this management was commercial and private sector, versus public sector, is not made clear, but it suggests that Oxonians played a genuine role in re-structuring Britain in the Thatcher years.

More familiarly, education still accounts for over a quarter of Oxonian-humanities careers, but as with all these results, you need to look into the breadcrumbs to find the real meaning. ‘Education’ could mean anything from a secondary school teacher in the inner city to setting up a higher education campus in China or recruiting foreign students – a significantly under-sung British export success, viewed from a purely economic perspective.

The other standout category is media, literature and arts. The last time I checked Jeremy Clarkson wasn’t an Oxonian, but the example of Top Gear – an enormous export success – is emblematic of the whole sector, in that the rest of the world values British journalism, J.K. Rowling, the BBC World Service, and lots of others, from Philip Pullman novels to the continuing balance of trade we get from publishing C.S.Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. This range of activity must also includes impecunious poets, but it would be churlish to hurl rocks at them for carrying the soul of the nation.

The top line result of the second half of the report, where 50 graduates are interviewed for their experiences, seems to be that tutorials are good for you, along with lots of other incidentals.

That sounds banal, but remember that part of the point of the report is to articulate what might seem quite intuitive for those of us who have been privileged enough to have had the experience firsthand. As West notes early in our chat: “As an academic community we have been very poor at articulating what we do, and why it is valuable.”

The report does it well, and does it as only Oxford can, with patience and articulacy, and by emphasizing what it can’t do for lack of evidence but would like to do in the future.

If I were a newspaper editor with a terrible deadline and a hounding owner, my first question would be why the sample set ends in 1989, which gives the appearance of rendering the whole report hopelessly stuck in the past. I would then expressly ignore the repeated plea to consider the report a piece of pilot research, and go on to note that the sample set consists only of alumni who chose to stay in touch with the University, which might make them more successful or more worldly than those who chose to drop through the grate. Then, I’d go on to note that the premise of the report, if not its objective, is still the Calimero hypothesis – it’s just embedded so deeply that you can’t find it. Until page 6, that is:

The long-established central position and general values of the Humanities at the heart of British higher education are being displaced by an approach that sees knowledge as more appropriately generated and governed by markets for skills and technical information that respond to immediate economics needs.

Then, I’d be noting that apparently not a single one of us became an entrepreneur in the Alan Sugar sense, although I’m sure that plenty of us did. But that sort of economic activity is lost when you judge employment data in terms of known professions and sectors, and gloss over the 719 of us categorized ‘Other’. Some of those are bound to be the most interesting careers, evading as they do simple categorization. Interestingly, of manufacturing as a sector I see nothing except a footnote which alludes to an Oxonian working in the marketing department of a car company.

Above all, if I were that troublesome newspaper editor, and of a red top disposition, I’d be making the remark that tonnes of Oxonians clambered into banking – and look where that got us! But if any editors do actually get their teeth stuck into this report, the result will be a very good one, argues West. “We are not trying to control any message at all,” she explains. “I hope it gets noticed even if some of the response is negative. It is possible to be negative about anything if you try hard enough.”

One can wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. The debate so far has, after all, been a very uneven one, with high-brow defending of the Humanities by individual academics and not enough rallying to the cause by ordinary graduates to explain how an Oxford education allowed them to succeed. The answers in the second half of this report are fascinating, but hover repeatedly around the development of critical thinking skills (which are transferable, to use the fashionable term), self-confidence and attaining a certain resilience in the face of situations where you have to act quickly to evince a tricky argument or point. Now, that starts to sound like the real world of work.

Could the report have been even more muscular than it is? Muscular might be the wrong word. On reflection, it seems extraordinary that the report is needed at all. On further reflection, it seems even more extraordinary that it has taken until now to even begin to pilot research of this nature. On the subject of timeliness, it is fascinating that the conclusion notes:

The system of direct grants to support young people’s higher education in the Humanities was thus a sound investment in their lives and futures, which has paid ample dividends to the British economy and society.

Somewhere I hear a stable door clinking and the faint sound of hooves bolting. But the most brilliant bit of the whole report is relinquished to a footnote unnecessarily, at the very end:

The Scientific Revolution, to take only single instance, was grounded in traditions of critical thinking fundamental to Classical Humanism

It reminded me of the point made by Professor Jonathan Bate in Oxford Today two years ago, citing a colleague, who made the point that, when medical science has given you an extra three years to live, what do you do with them? The answer given was “Read books, debate ideas, go to plays and movies, develop [their] capacity for thinking.” It may all seem terribly obvious, but apparently it is not.

The other thing missing from the report, that would have been nice, is benchmark data showing how important the various sectors in question have been to the British economy (AKA the Jeremy Clarkson Effect, the Importance of the City, etc). That, and all of the research continued from 1989 to the recent past – that's to, say several generations – gives a clear justification for another report. As quickly as possible.