Frown and gown

by May 14, 2012 No Comments

Are questions about the value of a degree fair? 

With tuition fees rising, unemployment high, and employability becoming a key factor in the decision-making of prospective university students, it is hardly surprising that questions are being asked about the value of going to university. Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) set out to answer some of those questions at the beginning of April, launching its first graduate survey to find out how the economic downturn was affecting university-leavers, and what they felt about the level of support on offer to help them find work. The survey, which closed on 7 May, isn’t scientific, and is by its nature selfselecting – graduates who found jobs easily are unlikely to have taken part – but the responses are nonetheless causing concern.

“It makes me incredibly depressed when I think back to the time I spent agonising over every paragraph in an essay, the hours I spent trawling through books in the library, the sacrifices I made in order to get my degree. I earn significantly less now than I did before starting my degree course,” replied Rob Goss, 25, who studied English at the University of Aberdeen. “Despite having ten-plus years of experience in the work place the feedback from employers is ‘lack of work experience’ or that someone was more experienced than me,” writes Janine Ballantyne, a 27 year old with a social sciences degree from the University of Glasgow. “I had this target of being successful and feel that I am being left behind,” says Mark Cooper, a 27 year old politics and international relations graduate of the University of Aberdeen.

“Sometimes I wonder why I did a degree in the first place.” Matt McLister, himself a recent graduate who struggled to find work after leaving the University of Glasgow in 2009 with a history degree, ran the survey for CAS. The aim of the study wasn’t to give a complete picture of the graduate jobs market, he says, but to reach out to those who are in difficulty. “With this survey, we’re not trying to say that this is every graduate’s experience, and we’re not trying to say this is an average experience – this is a snapshot of people who are struggling to get a job after university.” But are the views expressed in the survey justified? Linda Murdoch, deputy director of careers services at the University of Glasgow and Scottish convener of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) believes that while the situation has undoubtedly become more difficult for graduates, suggestions that degrees might be losing their value are unfair, and unhelpful. “If students think there are no jobs out there, they don’t try – or they apply what we would call a scattergun approach. They send out lots of unfocused applications, and we then get employers coming back to say, ‘I’m getting applications but they’re really poor, illprepared and unfocused, from students that have really not thought through what they want to do and why they want to work for us’,” she says.

Murdoch wants to see media coverage influenced by a far more dispassionate look at the figures surrounding graduate unemployment. Despite the negative headlines, a degree still has significant value. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that university graduates have a huge advantage over those without a degree, enjoying far greater earning potential and quality of life in the long term,” says NUS Scotland President, Robin Parker. A graduate’s earnings over a 48-year career are on average £600,000 higher compared with an 18 year old holding school-level qualifications, according to research by investment firm Skandia. “That’s why we must also focus on providing more opportunities for school and college leavers to enter university, and increase the number of places in our colleges and universities,” Parker adds.

Part of the problem of communicating this value, however, revolves around how the statistics for graduate unemployment are presented. Graduate unemployment rates vary greatly depending on age and the length of time since graduation and headlines earlier this year claiming that school leavers are as likely to find work as graduates have been questioned by higher education authorities. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) claim that while 20 per cent of 18-year-old school leavers did not find work, the figure was 25 per cent for 21-year-old graduates across the UK.

The figures were seized upon by sections of the media as evidence that degrees had a diminishing value, however, as Charlie Ball, deputy research director at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) points out, they require close reading. The statistics reflect the situation for the third quarter of the year, when some of those classed as ‘graduates’ are officially still students. The fact that 75.2 per cent of university-leavers at that point, have employment to go into should in fact be considered fairly successful, claims Ball.

“The job prospects for graduates are not the same as for people with lower qualifications,” he concludes.

The battle over perceptions of a degree’s value is hardest-fought in the area of the arts and humanities, where positive stories about employability are harder to convey compared with the success of more vocational subject areas to link their qualifications with employers and jobs. “There is a train of thought that businesses don’t want to recruit humanities graduates, but it’s not true,” says Murdoch. “There are areas of engineering that are quite tough at the moment, because the construction industry is on its knees.

Businesses are really keen to recruit humanities graduates,” she adds, highlighting continued demand from graduate recruiters in financial services.

As suggested by the CAS study – whose largest cohort of respondents came from arts and humanities subject areas – de-motivated humanities students tend to lack a clear idea of what career they’d like to pursue, and have a poor awareness of what soft skills they’ve gained from their time at university. That has a significant impact on how they approach the jobs market. “If you’re a history or English graduate, the reason why you do your subject is because you’ve probably not got a particular vocation in mind. These graduates tend to be more likely to go into everyday jobs,” says Murdoch. A survey by the Confederation of British Industry and the National Union of Students in 2011 found that just 39 per cent of students had plans for their post-university career.

Nicholas Davey, professor of philosophy at the University of Dundee, agrees that there may be some truth in the suggestion that humanities students don’t generally have a clear sense of what skills they’ve gained and how they can put them to use. In a talk on 1 May entitled ‘Should humanities be taught at university?’, Davey laid out his concerns about how humanities subjects are taught at university. Speaking to Holyrood ahead of the event, he outlined his view that humanities students are too often given a limiting sense of the value of their studies being contained within their subject area.

“What happens if the value isn’t realised? This is the great value of studying history – you become a great historical writer,” says Davey.

“You can’t get a job as a historical writer – the whole argument begins to fall back on itself.

The social-political justification for money going into the humanities surely resides in the fact that they produce in participants skill sets of responsiveness which apply to history, but if they’re worth anything transcend history and can be applied to literature, to politics, to economics… they have an interdisciplinary value in their own right.” Universities and their careers services are keen to stress that despite whatever messages about their employability that humanities students might be taking on board, there are a variety of graduate roles available, with the potential for high pay and career progression. “For almost all of our programmes, we don’t specify a degree discipline, because the professional development programmes that people undertake are in place to develop the technical skills necessary,” says Rosie Mackay, a Glasgow-based graduate recruitment officer for Ernst & Young.

Mackay echoes the message that rather than a genuine dearth of opportunities for graduates from non-vocation degrees, the problem lies with the way those opportunities are publicised.

“There’s a lot of negative press about the lack of graduate jobs and opportunities, and accounts and finance students perhaps see a clearer route into the organisation. We need to work a little bit harder to get that message across to arts and humanities students, and help them understand how they can apply their skills in an organisation like ours. We need to be really constructive in the conversations we’re having with them.” Another issue identified by the CAS study is the extent to which students engage with the careers services available. McLister says one of the main problems revealed by the CAS study was that students only did so late in their degrees – sometimes not until the final term of their fourth year. “The careers service could be emailing you every week, but there will still be students walking through the door who will say they never got an email from us because they’re not tuned in,” says Murdoch. “The result is, by the time they’ve graduated, they’re not ready for the job market.” Careers services and graduate recruiters are now focusing on motivating students to approach them for guidance earlier in their degrees. “If students get involved in career planning early, they’ll see that a large proportion of organisations don’t look at degree background, and they should focus on what skills and strengths can transfer across to employers,” says Mackay. Thinking about employability earlier should allow students to make better use of work-experience opportunities that prospective employers offer.

Universities themselves are also working to create more internship and work-experience opportunities for students and graduates, embedding employability skills directly into the curriculum. Schemes such as Employability Link at the University of the West of Scotland, which is run in-house and works with local business to create placements for students, complement those opportunities offered directly by the private sector.

“More organisations are offering internships and ways to engage with companies earlier,” says Mackay. “We offer six week placements, or year-in-industry placements, which give students an opportunity to experience the work of a graduate. We review students against their objectives and as long as they’ve met them, there’s a job there for them once they graduate,” she says.

Paris Gourtsoyannis Paris Gourtsoyannis

Paris joined Holyrood in September 2011, and became education correspondent in May 2012. Born in Canada into a Greek family, and raised in Belgium, he came to Scotland in 2005 to study at the University of Edinburgh, where he was involved with award-winning student publication The Journal. Before working at Holyrood, Paris contributed to the Edinburgh Evening News, the Guardian and Guardian Local, and interned at think-tank Demos. His beat takes in all areas of Scotland's education and skills sector, including early years, adult learning, and employability...

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