Skills & 

Current Debates and Recent Work

Graduate employment is likely to be an issue in forthcoming changes to higher education funding and regulation. Our work gives a broad take and we will be producing an employability briefing note later in 2021.

Our 2020 report, supported by SAGE Publishing, shows that private sector businesses value social science knowledge and skills. They use social science to run their companies day-to-day; to understand markets, clients and consumers; to analyse and manage risk and long-term strategy; and in their R&D.

In our case studies, we found that companies, including companies usually thought of as STEM-based, expected cross-disciplinary teams to become more common. Social scientists with number and data skills were increasingly valued. There is evidence of how particular disciplines work in various companies, as well as use of more generic social science skills and knowledge.

Many companies who used social sciences in varied ways did not think of this as ‘social science’ – they spoke of particular disciplines (economics, geography, political studies, business and management) or of generic analytic skills. They hire social science graduates across many disciplines.

We called for more attention to the statistical strengths and weaknesses of datasets, especially when using them to inform public policy. Many ‘big’ datasets arise from particular processes; while they can be useful, it is important to know who isn’t included.

We called for better access to datasets linking health and social science data (which have shown their importance during COVID-19). We called for more investment in area-based data, and pointed to various university-based social scientists working with their local authorities to provide real-time, small-area data.

We think a National Data Strategy should be supported by a Data Skills Strategy, and suggested ways that this could be developed, including restoring Maths AS level, increasing data content in other A-level subjects, and technical apprenticeships.

This consultation related to anonymised data and we raised various issues of ethical governance as well.


Our 2018 report, supported by SAGE Publishing, uses 2016 evidence, but the big picture has not changed. Almost 4 in 10 students graduate with a social science degree. They are employed at a similar rate as STEM graduates, and their earnings are similar in the first years after graduation.

There are subject differences. Law, economics and management (LEM) graduates earn more. Politics and geography graduates do better than some STEM graduates. Education, psychology and social work graduates usually work in the public sector, so over time they earn less than those in private sector firms.

The evidence shows that having number and data skills increases employability and earnings.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has since produced reports using robust long-term evidence. These show that background factors (male or female, or the area of the country), as well as which university graduates are from, matter too.

Community Resources

  • The impact of undergraduate degrees on lifetime earnings

    Institute for Fiscal Studies View
  • How much does degree choice matter?

    Institute for Fiscal Studies View
  • Large variation in earnings returns among those with postgraduate degrees

    Institute for Fiscal Studies View