The Degree Dilemma

These days students choose between studying a subject that they love or one that could lead to a stable career. But in these difficult economic times how do we know for sure which subjects will result in employment after all that hard work and debt? And is going to university in your late teens or early twenties really the best option for everyone? Hannah Gibson reports.

As the end of her time at college approached, Eva Clow didn’t know what to do next. She took to a girls’ forum for advice and wrote, ‘Do I go to university to do drama which is something that I adore and is my absolute dream job, or do I go to do French which I’m good at and can possibly get a good career out of?’

Joint and combined-honours courses were a potential solution for Eva. A search on UCAS’ website reveals that subjects linked with dance and drama include history, psychology, modern foreign languages and even biology. Media and creative arts subjects are often combined with more practical, workplace-relevant disciplines, such as the snappily-titled English for International Corporate Communication, Creative & Professional Writing and Counselling & Psychotherapy Principles & Practices.

There are financial considerations too – students are paying upwards of £30,000 for a three year undergraduate degree and that’s leaving aside living costs. Students want to know that their investment is going to pay off at some point, in the form of a stable job, whether it be in the subject area they’ve studied or not.

However, with 554,000 people aged 16-24 unemployed and graduate jobs being likened to gold dust, it’s easy to see why some students have taken the view that, if even a vocational degree won’t get you a job in today’s market, why not make your degree something you’re going to enjoy? If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re far more likely to succeed in it. In any case, students pick up transferable skills in arts subjects that can be useful in the workplace, such as proofreading, presentation skills and lateral thinking.

The other problem here is that people often fall in love with one of the more vocationally promising disciplines, but still find themselves unemployable after learning it. Nicholas Gibson is in his final year at the University of Bristol studying for an MSc in Palaeontology and Evolution, a ‘hard science’ subject he chose because of his childhood love of dinosaurs. He’s been searching for graduate jobs and found the opportunities scarce, but at least he’s enjoyed learning about palaeontology for its own sake.

There is of course the option of not studying at university and instead going straight into work. In my experience, if someone doesn’t know what to study at university then university may not be for them. After falling short of his predicted A-level grades in 2015, Yusuf Ahmed started an internship. For him, this was his best possible course of action since he could get practical experience in work that would enable him to find a job more easily later on.

There’s no rule to say that university has to be something you do straight after A-levels. You can always come back and apply for a degree as a ‘mature’ student. There are currently over 100,000 people doing this right now. Often enough older students choose to enter an arts degree because they have already experienced work and want to return to more creative outputs.

Other young people avoid employment for as long as possible by remaining inside the academy. Peter Dawson has a place on the PhD programme at Imperial College London, subject to him gaining a 2:1 for his Masters in engineering. In the past Peter was awarded scholarships for his undergraduate and graduate studies. His decision to stay in higher education means he will eventually be employable as a researcher or lecturer.

As we’ve seen, there are numerous angles from which to approach work and higher education. It’s up to you to decide on the best one for you.