Open letter to students approaching graduation

by Professor Sir David Cannadine FBA

23 Jun 2021

I should like to take this opportunity to offer my warmest congratulations to the thousands of young people up and down the country who, despite the challenges and hardships of the last eighteen months, have made it to this important milestone and impending rite of passage.

As an historian, and as President of the British Academy – the national academy for the humanities and social sciences – I want to send a strong and encouraging message to graduates of these subjects to which we have recently given the acronym SHAPE, standing for Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy.

It would be impossible for you to have studied SHAPE subjects for three or four years if you did not evince a passion for them and share the belief that they provide a pathway to better things, equipping you with knowledge and skills, encouraging critical thinking, enabling you to craft persuasive arguments, and giving you a broad understanding of today’s challenging social issues and contemporary cultural developments.

You may therefore – like me – feel somewhat dismayed to hear our disciplines being described and disparaged by people who ought to know better as "low value" or "strategically unimportant" activities. As someone who believes in the importance of truth, evidence and reason, I can tell you that I am unconvinced.

Pursuing your passion – whether it be for history or philosophy, anthropology or sociology – beyond school and into university carries no penalty in your life once you have graduated; on the contrary, it confers enormous benefits.

There is great and growing demand for the knowledge, skills and understanding gained from the subjects you have studied, and this is scarcely surprising, since the UK is predominantly a services-based economy. You are – on average – likely to earn the same salary as your peers who are graduating in such STEM subjects as physics, engineering or maths, and you will have a greater choice of sectors in which to work.

These include many of the fastest growing parts of the economy, such as information and communications, financial, legal and professional services, and the creative industries. And many of you will use your degrees to embrace vocations such as teaching or social work – callings which are not among the most highly remunerated but are vital for society and richly rewarding besides.

And whatever you choose to do, as graduates in the humanities and social sciences, our research shows that you will be resilient and flexible in an economic downturn.

For those planning to make academia your permanent home, research in the humanities and social sciences is a highly fruitful field. In the last European Research Council funding round, researchers in the UK won over a third of all awards made in the humanities and social sciences throughout Europe – more than any other country and a higher rate of success than the UK achieves in other disciplines like the physical sciences and engineering.

The disparagement of the humanities and the social sciences is nothing new and invariably misguided, not least because the skills, knowledge and understanding that these disciplines teach and nurture are also vital for promoting our national prosperity and our worldwide reputation for innovation and academic excellence.

Those with the ideas and insights to change society wield considerable power to change the world for the better, which is why you will find historians, philosophers, psychologists and social scientists in the corridors of power, in the boardrooms of businesses, and even in such unlikely places as the laboratories of Silicon Valley.

There will also be a continuing and growing demand for our skills in the future. How, for example, can we not need more graduates in languages as we seek to forge closer, stronger partnerships in the non-English speaking world, following our exit from the EU?

And as we live through another once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, exactly one century after the Spanish flu, can we really afford to consider history an old-fashioned and elite pursuit? Historians’ insights into the vulnerabilities of modern society are strategically vital. That’s why the Ministry of Defence, for one, counts historians among its most cherished advisers.

Social scientists have also been instrumental in developing public policies that have protected lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. These disciplines help us understand how people behave and how society and the economy adapt in crises and extraordinary circumstances. From the flexible furlough scheme to the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations, live-saving interventions have been made by economists, sociologists and demographers.

Scholars of literature and the arts command great power in the modern world, considering the persuasive power of poetry and storytelling and their ability to project ideas into our minds. Poets and writers are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world", as Shelley put it, as are screenwriters, filmmakers and digital designers. These are the people behind what may be the UK’s greatest global asset – its creative industries, which pre-pandemic contributed more to the economy than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.

So, the UK needs SHAPE graduates just like you. As the problems we face become increasingly global and our social worlds become ever more complex, we need more people than ever before who understand society and humanity, and who take a broad view of things.

You are those people. I salute your perseverance, I commend you on your choice of subject and I am excited for each and every one of you. You should approach the coming months with enthusiasm and optimism. Your skills and knowledge are much needed. So: go forth with confidence, make your mark on the world, and in so doing make it a better place for us all.


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