Anyone who has manned the phones during Clearing for the last few years may well have detected a shift in the kinds of questions asked. Once upon a time most of the questions would have revolved around grades and courses. Nowadays, the conversations are equally likely to steer towards career-related questions, and in particular which courses might be best in terms of leading to certain occupations.
The reason for this is tuition fees, and one of the inevitable consequences of their introduction has been to focus the minds of students far more on whether the course they do is likely to lead them to employment and how well that employment will pay. With the average student now coming out of university with debts totalling around £30,000, many feel they no longer have the luxury of choosing to do a subject that they “like”, but are instead having to think more in terms of doing something that will stand them in good stead in the future.
This issue was highlighted in a recent Guardian piece, Love or Money? High tuition fees lead students to vocational degrees. The article quoted one second year student who summed up the dilemma many are facing:
“You could devote all your spare time to your favourite hobby, but if doing so came with a £50,000 bill and gave you no major boost for your future, then you’d think again… Literature is definitely the subject I enjoy the most and it would have been amazing to pursue it at uni, but in the current tough job market, and with £9,000 annual fees, I just couldn’t justify it. So I chose a course that would really boost my employability.”
Whilst some will see this as just an unintended consequence of the introduction of fees, others are more sceptical. For instance, the Guardian piece quotes Professor Howard Hotson, who sits on the executive committee of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, as saying:
“This shift toward more vocationally and professionally orientated study is the direct, intended, inevitable result of the imposition of £27,000 in fees. The whole purpose of a ‘university market’ is to ensure that the purely monetary values of the marketplace displace … the academic values of the university.”
He may have a point, but regardless of whether you agree with him, what is undeniable is that faced with the prospect of leaving university with a mountain of debt, many will indeed look far more closely at the correlation between the course they are doing and their career prospects at the end. Although this change in approach is by no means universal – a point highlighted in the Guardian piece – the sheer scale of debt accrued throughout a degree means that by and large most students are being forced to choose sheer economic pragmatism over academic idealism.
There is ample evidence that this is happening. For instance, the UK Graduate Careers Survey 2015, which we wrote about here, found that the number of students who began researching their career options by the end of the first year was 48% – the highest they had ever recorded. Another pointer to this attitude shift is to look at which degrees are the most popular. Whilst humanities and arts degrees have been declining in recent years, according to HESA, degrees which are more associated with higher incomes, such as business and administrative studies and science-based subjects, have increased.
This should lead us to a couple of important questions:
1. What information are students and prospective students using to research courses and the careers they might lead to?
2. What are universities doing to give them the type of information they require?
Failure to take these questions seriously means that we could end up with the worst of both worlds: one where students feel they can no longer afford to do certain courses because they perceive it will not advance their career prospects, but where they still end up doing a course that is doesn’t enhance their career prospects.
Take the popularity of degrees in business and administrative studies mentioned earlier. The reason that more people are choosing this type of degree is that they assume it is more likely to lead them to a related career and one which will pay a decent income. But is this the case? Possibly, but not necessarily. What if the demand for careers directly related to this type of degree just isn’t there? What if there simply isn’t the demand in the area where they are going to live after university (which, according to HESCU, is normally in the region of study)? This is not to say that such graduates won’t find work, but it may mean that doing a business and administrative studies degree turns out to be of no more use to them – in terms of the career they end up doing – than one they ruled out as being less likely to lead to a sustainable career.
In other words, though students and prospective students are clearly more aware of the need to study in a field which will give them the best chance of securing a good, well paid career, if they are making these life-changing decisions based on assumptions, rather than on the basis of objective data, they could well be making decisions which are counter-productive. After all, the number of careers out there requiring a degree in business and administrative studies is not infinite!
This is where universities have a huge responsibility, not to mention a great opportunity. The evidence shows that young people are thinking more carefully about where their course will lead them, but most will be doing so on the basis of subjective assumptions, rather than objective data. If we are to avoid a situation where thousands of students end up going down rabbit trails in search of careers which there turns out to be no demand for when they graduate, it is time for universities to step up to the plate and provide them with the information they need.
For details of our how our employment and earnings data can help you to help your students make good decisions, contact Dr Jamie Mackay (firstname.lastname@example.org)