Degree Courses or Curses?

Trick or Treat? When shall we three ex-fashion degree students meet again?

The popular belief is that a degree course will lead one on to a successful and rewarding career. While this might be true for some students, the chances are that the degree they choose to study won’t provide a particularly good preparation for the realities of working life. Are all degree courses a ticket to a successful career, or would some students perhaps be better off taking a different subject or even not going to university at all?

The other week the Daily Telegraph published figures detailing the most popular subjects being studied at degree level. The numbers got All Change Please! thinking, and, as usual, helping to stir the cauldron by asking some awkward questions. So if you know any of the answers, or just care to speculate widely, please leave a comment.

The first question is to what extent does the country needs these numbers of qualified graduates? But the second, more interesting, question is that given that someone’s degree curse subject does not necessarily lead to employment in that area, what impact does it have on the individual’s aspirations, values and problem-solving abilities that they take forward though life?

Take, for example, the approx 13,000 history students coming on to the market each year (assuming from the Daily Telegraph figures that they are each following a three year course). Given there are relatively few job opportunities for historians and professional essay-writers, presumably most end up working in areas where a direct knowledge of history is not of any great or particular use. But when they apply their analytic, data-gathering, structured verbal thinking skills to whatever situation they find themselves in, how well are they able to able to extrapolate future possibilities from past precedents, or to communicate effectively through the diversity of the media? And to what extent does their background influence the sense of heritage culture that seems to pervade the country, to an extent at the expense of developing forward-thinking new technologies and applications?

Now before All Change Please! is a accused of  having a go at history again, let’s turn to art and design, which has always been more vocationally orientated. Again it seems doubtful whether the country needs around 22,000 new artists and designers a year. Of course, to be helpful the figure needs a much more detailed break-down (as I suspect many of the other subject areas do) – for example, how many of these are students of fine arts, or design studies, or art and design history? Ultimately though these graduates are less likely to be employed than most in areas that lie outside the non-creative industries, and where they are, their potential contribution is unlikely to be under-utilised and under-valued.

Anyway, perhaps it’s good to know that waiting in the wings there are nearly 14,000 new nurses appearing each year, 20,000 psychologists and some 22,000 sociologists all ready to help care for the 18,700 new teachers who, in the current climate of educational reform, are highly likely to need their assistance with their physical, mental health and housing requirements at some point in their lives.

Meanwhile, please spare a kind thought for the 22,000 new lawyers, who let’s face it, might eventually earn a lot, but soon discover that their chosen profession does not involve much in the way of Perry Mason courtroom dramas, but mainly conveyancing, divorces and the odd spot of ambulance chasing when they get really bored.

But the winner of the most popular degree curse subject is not, as one might suspect, geography or media studies, but business, management and accountancy, producing something like a whopping 54,000 graduates a year. which just makes one wonder how come so many start-ups and established business fail though poor management, and why the country doesn’t seem to have an economy that adds up correctly?

Surely though what is most surprising is the general lack of correlation between the GCSE EBacc subjects and those that are ultimately studied at University? With the exception of history and bio-sciences, many students go on to take degree curses that did not form part of their GCSE experience.

However, the really disturbing statistic published the other day was the extremely untidy number of NEETs (16-25 year-olds Not in Employment, Education or Training, or even stacking supermarket shelves or sweeping the streets) – some 960,000, which equates to roughly 1 in 6 of the age-range. This is a quite scandalous figure, and a damning indictment of previous post-1988 Conservative and Labour National Curriculum academically-focused education policies, that have done absolutely nothing for this section of the population. And the way things are going in terms of making GCSEs more academically demanding, there is going to be an increasing number of them for the foreseeable future.

All answers please on these challenging questions in essay-form only, on the back of a unused degree certificate, or alternatively in the Reply box below…

Hubble bubble, toil and trouble…

Image credit: KAYUSA

5 comments on “Degree Courses or Curses?

  1. In my experience, people who decide not to go to university and who have achieved great things in their chosen career, still often regret that they didn’t go to university. Is that just because it makes them feel excluded from a ‘special club’ perhaps, or because there really is something valuable about spending three years having fun and doing some light study along the way, regardless of its relevance to what you go on to do? It’s working life that is the curse, in my view. As per (university librarian) Philip Larkin: ‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life? / Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork / And drive the brute off?’ I think he wanted to be NEET. We should make university courses irrelevant to whatever the grim reality of the future workplace may be.

    • Speaking as someone who didn’t go to university, I think the problem is more that the older you get the more you distort your memories of the past, and imagine an alternate reality to escape the crushing reality you live in caused by the way we’ve organized society and work.

      I like the lyrics in Baz Luhrmann’s sunscreen.

      “Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.”

  2. I’m reminded of a quote I came across this morning by the designer Alan Fletcher: ‘I love work. I could sit and watch it for hours’.

  3. The underlying premise of this article illegitimately shifts the ethos of the HND onto academic degrees. Preposterous. The purpose of an academic degree is to train the mind, the subject matter is of absolutely no importance. It is time this moronic approach to higher education was consigned to the flames.

  4. @Luke Ah, the old ‘purpose of an academic degree is to train the mind and the subject matter is of no importance’ argument! In that case why all the problems and fuss with so-called ‘soft subjects’? I would suggest most students choose a university degree do so because it has some potential relevance to a career they aspire to follow, which perhaps explains why the most popular courses, with the exception of history, all have some potential vocational dimension, as opposed to the more academically orientated GCSE courses they have been expected to do.

    As for shifting the ethos of the HND onto academic degrees, that happened a long time ago when polytechnics became universities. Describing this approach as ‘moronic’ and ‘illegitimate’ sounds like nothing more than high-level academic elitism.

    But the point of the post was to question the impact of one’s degree choice on later life experience in terms of future employment. Of course if one is following a purely academic pathway of no practical use whatsoever, then, providing one gains ivory-tower employment in research, teaching or lecturing there is no problem. But I wonder how many ‘frustrated’ academics there are working in jobs that fail to allow them to use their highly-trained minds?

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