Monday 01 June 2015

A degree in social sciences plus international study or work experience are the two most commonly shared characteristics of professional leaders around the world, a new British Council study has revealed.

44 per cent of leaders surveyed have a social science degree, and 46 per cent have some experience of education or work outside of their home country.

The British Council, in partnership with Ipsos Public Affairs, conducted a study of 1,709 current professional leaders with higher education qualifications from 30 countries, and across sectors. The aim of the research was to reveal the higher education backgrounds of professional leaders around the world, and examine how direct learning and other higher education experiences had affected their careers.

The research will be launched today at the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international education, in London.

The research reveals that:

  • the majority of leaders have degrees in the social sciences and humanities
  • young (under 45 years old) professional leaders favour degrees in social sciences and humanities, compared to older leaders
  • a greater proportion of leaders have international educational or professional experience, compared to the general population
  • extra-curricular and networking opportunities afforded by higher education are just as valuable as direct learning.

A third of professional leaders surveyed have international work experience and a third have international education experience. 17 per cent have both international work and education experience.

Of those that pursue education abroad, the likelihood of international study increases with degree level. Less than one fifth (16%) of leaders have bachelor’s degrees from another country, whereas over one third (38%) have advanced degrees from overseas institutions.

Where leaders traveled internationally for their undergraduate education, 40 per cent studied in the US, followed by the UK at 17 per cent. Looking at professional degrees only, 52 per cent of leaders that obtained a degree outside their home country went to the US, and 18 per cent studied for a professional degree in the UK.

Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council Director of Education, said: 'The world needs leaders who can handle complexity and give diverse perspectives on the challenges we all face. 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.”

Paul Smith, British Council Director in the US, said “Quality leadership, and leadership potential, is at a premium in navigating the challenges and fractures of a world of increasing risk and opportunity. Our research shows a clear need for leaders who have critical analytical and interpretative skills as well as professional knowledge, leaders who can make decisions based on understanding of cultural context and human insight, and leaders who are international in their outlook and, increasingly, in their learning experience. Knowledge and aptitude in the humanities, the social sciences and STEM are all essential to grow trustworthy global leadership. Academics need to re-converge to produce leaders who can discover holistic solutions to humanly complex problems.”

Social sciences and humanities together make up over half (55 per cent) of bachelor’s degrees among leaders in the study, with social sciences making up the majority (44 per cent) of these. The number of current professional leaders with a social science degree seems to be much higher than in the general population.

Nearly two thirds of professional leaders studied hold an advanced degree (such as a Master of Arts/Science, a PhD, or an MBA). Half of those that hold master’s degrees and doctoral degrees studied social sciences. However, the humanities constitute a significantly smaller proportion – less than 1 in 10 for a master’s and 1 in 20 for a doctoral degree.

While men and women are roughly equal in social sciences and business undergraduate degrees, men are more than twice as likely to have engineering degrees (17 per cent compared with 6 per cent), and women are more than twice as likely to have humanities degrees (17 per cent compared with 7 per cent).

The research also found that 79 per cent of politicians studied social sciences or the humanities during their undergraduate education, and 67 per cent have no advanced degree. However, 63 per cent of civil servants have an advanced degree (23 per cent hold an MBA).



About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We create international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and build trust between them worldwide.

We work in more than 100 countries and our 8,000 staff – including 2,000 teachers – work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year by teaching English, sharing the arts and delivering education and society programmes.

We are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter. A core publicly-funded grant provides less than 20 per cent of our turnover which last year was £864 million. The rest of our revenues are earned from services which customers around the world pay for, through education and development contracts and from partnerships with public and private organisations. All our work is in pursuit of our charitable purpose and supports prosperity and security for the UK and globally.