students are increasingly studying subjects with little employer demand for some bizarre reason

Perhaps I was a greedy b’stard as a teenager, but I did take the jobs market into account in deciding what I studied at university. For balance, I should also allow for a different world, one where science and technology were seen as making stuff happen, putting people on the moon, and the fading echo of Harold Wilson’t white heat of technology. So I was interested in science and later engineering, particularly electronics. This was a time when there seemed to be more hobbies involving people making things; I constructed my first audio system using many parts salvaged from skips where people were throwing out their old 26″ black and white TVs as they got rich enough to move to colour, even though it was on the back of the last double-dip recession the UK has experienced, in the mid 1970s.

At school there was the consideration of whether to go to university. At that time only about 7% of school leavers went to university, and I recall there being books with typical subjects and the sort of jobs that subject helped you into. I was academically capable enough and figured my choice was between electronic engineering and something wider, like Physics. I was totally unaware of any choices for university courses that weren’t part of the mainstream O and A level courses offered at school, which were English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, French, German, History, Geography, Music and Art (though I don’t think the school did either of the last two at A level). I chose Physics rather than Electronic engineering because there seemed to be a wider range of jobs possible.

What puzzles me about what university students are increasingly studying is that it seems to be for specific  things that offer little potential for employment.

change in university studies, 1996 to 2010
change in university studies, 1996 to 2010

I’ve taken that from this Higher Education Policy Institute report, which I chased up after reading this and this because I just didn’t believe people would do something so bizarre.

If you consider the red line as the baseline (because the number of students was increased by 50% over the Labour administration), what are people really getting into? Nutrition, Journalism, Architecture, Drama, Philosophy, Politics, Marketing.

What are people really getting out of? Production and Manufacturing, American Studies, Agriculture, Sociology, Ophthalmics, French, Computer studies, Social Policy, Software Engineering. Science and Engineering of nearly all sorts is in retreat.

Now we are in a financial storm, and people need to find a load of money to go to university nowadays. What kind of jobs do Drama, Nutrition, Journalism set you up for? Newspapers across the country and shrinking,the Guardian seems to be going titsup, the theatre never makes money and the Arts Council has less taxpayer’s cash to flash around, and there are only so many nutritionists that Britain is going to need in a recession.

There’s more rationale for what people are getting out of. There’s no need for Production and Manufacturing in the UK unless you’re aiming for the high-end, and the sort of thing you needed Computer Studies and Software Engineering for are going to be done in India and eventually Africa.

There is far more information available to prospective students and their parents today, though there is also more uncertainty about what will be in demand in future. For all that, I’d expect people to be running away from what they’re getting in to, for the simple reason that it’s hard to see why people would spend a load of money studying for a dying field (journalism), or one that’s never made money ever (drama). Architecture and Marketing? maybe. The wholesale retreat from the sciences bodes ill for Making It In Great Britain as Saint Vince Cable would have us do. A double whammy for this project is demographics. There will be an awful lot of engineers and scientists from those white heat of technology days who will be quitting the workforce in the next 10 years. Hopefully that will mean opportunities in these fields but if graduates aren’t studying these subjects then those opportunities will go to waste and be exported. They may well be exported anyway, of course, if someone is looking for what to study they should perhap try and get a more accurate analysis of opportunities. The number of budding journalists looking to dive into a shrinking industry indicates this doesn’t happen, unless there is something I am seriously missing.