Jane Bradley: How to achieve a degree of success

For today's university students finding a job has become a case of vocation, vocation, vocation, writes Jane Bradley

Companies no longer have time or inclination to train new employees, they want ready-to-go people. And in the areas where there is a shortage of jobs, it is merely survival of the fittest  and the best-qualified. Picture: Tom Wang
Companies no longer have time or inclination to train new employees, they want ready-to-go people. And in the areas where there is a shortage of jobs, it is merely survival of the fittest  and the best-qualified. Picture: Tom Wang

I hate to admit it, but it turns out my husband is right. For years, he has lampooned friends who have geography degrees. “Colouring in degrees,” he calls them, recalling how, when we were at university in St Andrews some 15 years ago now, the geographers seemed to spend a lot of time making “posters”: a peculiarly geography department-specific exercise which required quite a lot of, well, colouring in.

In fact, when giving a best man’s speech at a geography graduate’s wedding, he mocked up a picture of the groom, Dave, completing one of those toddler world map jigsaws where the pieces have little handles on them.

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“Dave working hard on his degree,” he captioned it. Oh, how we all laughed. Apart from Dave.

But official figures have now confirmed his prejudice.

Geography is the degree with which you are least likely to gain a job soon after graduation, according to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency. The subject tops a 20-strong list of degree courses from which graduates are apparently least employable. It comes after the UK Government vowed to crack down on so-called “Mickey Mouse degrees” – by ensuring that universities release data about what jobs and salaries students move on to when they graduate from their courses.

Some of the usual suspects which could earn the moniker of a “Mickey Mouse degree” – anything which was not taught in Edinburgh or St Andrews during the Age of Enlightenment, things like sports science and criminology – are also up there in the top five, yet incongruously are followed by the traditionally academic subjects of history and French.

English literature, English language and psychology also feature – as do film studies, media studies and advertising.

Academic or vocational, it seems that the bare bones of having a degree of any particular type seems to have little effect on swaying a potential employer.

Yet, what these statistics really show is not what employers think of these degree courses themselves – but what their graduates are qualified to do in the real world – and how much of a skills gap there is in that field. For the crux of the problem is that popular degrees are not necessarily those where the jobs are – 
creating a serious supply and demand problem.

Another member of my family who will come over all “I told you so” when he hears about this survey is my dad.

A retired engineer, he works with various organisations in schools and colleges, mentoring students and trying to promote science and engineering as a career path. He claims that every time he meets a new class, he asks them how many of them want to work in culture, sport or media. Usually, he says, around a quarter of them raise their hands. How many want to work in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), he queries? Usually one. Or maybe two at a push.

He responds with a stat that just two per cent of first jobs are in culture, sport and media. He also usually follows it up by telling them what I earned when I started my first job as a trainee local reporter in the oh-so-glamorous media industry more than a decade ago. Pay for a similar job – if there was ever one going, which there’s generally not these days, in a culture of redundancies and cutbacks in the industry – is likely to be even lower now.

At that news, their jaws hit the floor and he stands back and watches as they clamour to find out more about life in the lucrative manufacturing and engineering industries.

Companies no longer have time or inclination to train new employees. They all want people to hit the ground running. And in the areas where there is a shortage of jobs, it is merely survival of the fittest – and the best-qualified.

We are, perhaps, in the arts subjects at least, moving towards a US-style two-tier system, where the undergrad degree is little more than a bit of fun: a glorified extension of high school, an opportunity to experience a bit of life while within the safety of a university campus – but only the bare minimum, academically and professionally speaking.

To get a job, most Americans would agree, especially in a high-competition field, they need to spend at least another year at 
graduate school.

Yet, bizarrely, even the so-called vocational courses in the UK are not necessarily preparing students for the world of work.

A recent work experience student who spent a week at Scotsman Towers – about to finish her final year of a four-year journalism degree at a Scottish university – told me she was struggling to find a trainee job on a local newspaper because she has not learned shorthand.

Why, I asked, after four years studying journalism, does she not have shorthand – an absolute requirement for anyone working in print media in the UK?

Because, it turns out, her course is considered to be academic, rather than practical. Therefore, her tutors do not believe it necessary to teach practical skills, beyond basic news writing. The course instead focused on media ethics, the coverage of topics such as terrorism, the representation of gender in the media.

All very interesting stuff. But I wonder what they think their students are hoping to achieve after graduation.

For the few who may become journalism academics, teaching the future generation of people like them, the course is ideal. Yet I would bet my contacts book on the fact that the vast majority hope not to become academics, but to work as journalism practitioners instead: writers, broadcasters and the like.

For our work experience girl, her options at this point are limited. She is being advised to spend another few thousand pounds on a year-long post-graduate course in practical journalism, which would teach her how to actually be a journalist – something she had, perhaps naively, assumed she would learn while at university, studying non-traditionally academic course.

A need to do a post-graduate vocational course – after four years on a semi-vocational undergraduate course. Worrying stuff for cash-strapped students already struggling to keep student loans to a minimum.