Are degrees a false economy?

It is what every student aspires to. They go through school with the single goal of gaining entry to college and then when at college their ambitions revolve around a University place. The academic path is a noble, somewhat traditional and prestigious path – but what will it amount to?

When students graduate they often enter a stark reality. They do not step foot into the promised land of jobs, realised dreams and natural vocations. Having slogged through three years of heavy theory, critical practical and…something that resembles a mental military camp they leave with an uncanny ability to question every single chain or thought and perspective in meticulous detail. But to what end? Are these skills actually transferable?

These are often passionately debated questions. Essentially, we are pitching vocational qualifications against degrees, more specifically against traditional degrees like English, History or Foreign Languages. There are perks to both paths but there is increasing evidence these days that the degree route is less respected and idly believed in than in past years.

A recent survey carried out on over 3500 parents, commissioned by the Edge Foundation and the City & Guilds Group revealed some sobering truths. It is easy to blame pressure on students to attend University on their parents but this is increasingly not the case. The survey found that:

“only 8% feel that studying for a history degree at university would make a graduate ‘very employable’ in the current job market.

Less than a quarter (22%) of parents said that an English degree would put a young person in the ‘very employable’ category, with a third (33%) saying the same about a foreign language degree.

In comparison, well over half (57%) of respondents rated a young person with a plumbing qualification or apprenticeship as being ‘very employable’ – higher than both a law degree (53%) and a science degree (52%).

Other vocational qualifications rated highly by parents for employability in the current job market include:  IT (51%), accountancy (44%), automotive engineering (44%) and construction (43%).” (Source)

So, are we entering a vocational qualification era? It feels like a positive move and a much needed shift in the landscape of our aspiring youth and their relationship with employment. The prospects provided by vocational qualifications easily match and sometimes even excel those associated with degrees.

There is an office full of accountants at ABC Accounting Services that would each recommend apprenticeships as the sure fire way of entering the profession of accounting. Vocational qualifications quickly submerge you in the atmosphere and environment of your career of choice. Within weeks trainees have a good idea of whether they have selected the right career for them and if they haven’t they may have to be patient before changing paths but they will not be saddled with excessive tuition fees.

Vocational qualifications are not cheap but they are far more realistic in the grand scale of things and you are working while you train so there is an opportunity to pay off fees while you study towards your end goals. This is far harder at University so at the age of 21 a student will leave with a minimum £27,000 student loan. It isn’t the most heart-warming venture to start your life in debt.

The survey also highlighted another interesting contradiction. Parents hope their children will achieve good GCSEs and A Levels because these are the ones that they know most about.

“There is a disconnect between what parents know about employability and what they feel is the best for their children in terms of academic achievement.” (Source)

There is still an odd pull on parents to champion the traditional route. Perhaps that is rooted in the pride of seeing your child gowned up and marching onto stage to accept their degree. There is something noble and prestigious in that still. The heritage of certain institutions holds a lot of sway and society still admires academics in a way that those who secure vocational qualifications will never know.

But why? There are thousands, tens of thousands, of academics who are taking any work they can get because they have not yet secured that job, found that lucky break, and realised the ambitions that took them to University in the first place. They are frustrated and lost in a world that promised them everything and delivered nothing in return, except debt and broken dreams.

Of course, this is not always the case but it is frequent enough to raise doubts. The vocational qualification delivers you straight into your job, there are exceptions, but that is pretty much the guarantee of apprenticeships. The plumbers, accountants, mechanics and IT technicians are the people we need daily. We rely on them. Some vocational qualifications receive the same gown and applause treatment these days but society is still catching up with the significance of that.

It may be time to ditch the façade and recognise where the real value of employment lies. There has to be a job available at the end of the course, whatever that may be. Picking the perfect profession is a cleverly marketed dream if there are no vacancies at this time, or at any time in the future!

Degrees are not false economy but some of the beliefs and dreams that encourage students onto them may well be. This is not an attack on creativity, impulsive decisions and freedom of expression – that is a student’s God given right! But, I would advise all parents and students to keep their eye on one thing as they follow their heart – where are the jobs?

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