Social Sciences Produce Leaders

New global survey of those in positions of influence finds that 44 percent have a degree in social sciences. Another 11 percent studied humanities.

June 1, 2015

LONDON -- Politicians and plenty of parents throughout the world regularly urge students to think practically, and to focus on degrees in technology or business. And colleges and universities around the world are being pressured to focus on disciplines outside the liberal arts and sciences.

But a survey being released today suggests that leaders of a range of organizations internationally (including the United States) are most likely to have a degree in the social sciences, with 44 percent of leaders holding such a credential.

And with another 11 percent reporting that they studied the humanities, a solid majority of 55 percent have degrees in traditional liberal arts fields. (And that doesn't count smaller numbers who studied liberal arts majors in the physical and biological sciences.)

The study was conducted by the British Council and is being released here at Going Global, the council’s annual international education meeting.

The survey collected information from 1,709 leaders in 30 countries. Leaders were defined as “those who are in a position of influence within their organization and their sectors more broadly.” The leaders were from both the public and private sectors.

Non-liberal arts fields with high representation among the leaders included business (14 percent) and engineering (12 percent).

There were some differences among men and women in the survey pool. Men were more likely to have degrees in engineering (17 percent versus 6 percent of the women). Women were more likely to have a humanities degree (17 percent versus 7 percent of men).

Twenty-two percent of those identified as leaders had a professional degree and, of these, 64 percent had an M.B.A.

The substantial representation of social science graduates among leaders in organizations all over the world comes at a time of considerable questioning of the relevance of those disciplines. Florida Governor Rick Scott has questioned whether his state needs any more anthropology graduates. And in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Republican-backed bill would make large cuts in authorization levels for federal spending on the social sciences.

A statement from Rebecca Hughes, director of education at the British Council, said the results of the survey show the potential flaws of assuming everyone should study professionally oriented subjects.

“The world needs leaders who can handle complexity and give diverse perspectives on the challenges we all face,” she said. “Globally, we need to go beyond a simple 'two cultures' binary outlook these days and as this research suggests, it is those with backgrounds that enable them to draw from multiple cultural reference points, and the academic training that encourages them to explore the human dimensions behind empirical data, who have tended to succeed and reach positions of leadership.”

International Exposure

Another pattern noted in the report on the survey was that many leaders globally have had experience studying or working outside their home country. But this is least likely to be the case for those from the United States, Britain or Canada.

Globally, 46 percent of the leaders surveyed had some international experience. About one-third have international work experience; about one-third have international study experience and 17 percent have both.

Those numbers, however, are very different for the U.S., U.K. and Canada, where 25 percent had some international experience, with 14 percent having studied overseas and 19 percent having worked overseas, and 8 percent having done both.

Leaders from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt were most likely to have had international experience (71 percent), with 55 percent reporting that they had studied overseas, 48 percent having worked overseas and 32 percent having done both.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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