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.


16 thoughts on “students are increasingly studying subjects with little employer demand for some bizarre reason”

  1. Interesting graph!

    You’re too gloomy as usual. We’re mostly a service economy. Drama, Journalism, etc – those are the kind of things you want to see in a rich, developed world service economy.

    We only need two guys and a couple of tractors to produce enough food for 60 million people, so everybody else can stay busy selling each other Harry Potter ebooks, episodes of Dr Who, and recipes for really excellent food.

    There are probably many more journalism and Drama grads going into things like publishing and advertising than the mainstream media, and the UK is great at publishing and advertising.

    This is all just a result of how freaking awesome market economies are. When the emerging markets get up to speed we’ll be able to sell episodes of Dr Who dubbed into Mandarin to a billion rich Chinese people, and in return they can sell us excellent televisions made by two guys and a factory run entirely by robots.

    It’s all good.


  2. Lemondy – that’s right. As an employer of graduates I can vouch for the astoundingly diverse and cultured pool of talent which now pours forth from the rich springs of academe – and you would be truly be amazed how many of them now have Firsts!


  3. I don’t know too much about the UK, but where I come from, Canada, tech.ed. in schools was watered down and just about eliminated from the school system. Now there’s such a shortage of skilled tradespeople that things are turning around.

    University is just one avenue for training. The community college system is much better and more flexible in providing skill-specific training that leads to jobs. In my home province we are top-heavy with universities, but the community college system is expanding and attracting students who would have otherwise gone to university had there not been a choice.

    I always thought a lot of people went to university who shouldn’t have been there. Most graduates ended up doing jobs other than what their credential qualified them for, like drama,it merely allowed them the opportunity to get their foot in the door to a real job.

    Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think university should be a place where you go to study a specific discipline to become expert, or somewhat of an expert, in your particular field of study. Most of my classmates, way back when, were there primarily to get a credential of some sort to get a job. There were few alternatives then other than the trades or vocational training and there was massive unemployment.Think people with doctorates driving cabs.

    Anyway, journalism is probably not a bad choice. There are a lot of jobs for writers out there especially on the internet. Technical writers and editors are also in demand but I suspect there are a lot of people attending university interested in entertainment rather than work :).


  4. @Lemondy Find a good community college that teaches Technical Writing and you’ll find some technical writers. This is an area where community colleges thrive: skill-specific training.


  5. It is strange that with rising fees, students are not put off studying degrees that will provide a very limited return on investment.

    This statement “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.” suggests that graduates equipped with such skills will be able to demand significant salaries in the future.

    From a bigger picture perspective, a government concerned about the future competitiveness of the UK could try to promote the growth science & innovation skills by subsidising the degree courses relevant to those areas, so Media Studies and Drama will cost £9k per year, whilst physics and computer science will cost £1.5k per year.


  6. > suggests that graduates equipped with such
    > skills will be able to demand significant
    > salaries in the future.

    UK salaries for engineers are quite low by American standards, so I don’t think the high salaries will be in the UK.


  7. @Lemondy, Trevor you guys have a dry sense of humour 😉

    @g, not sure I every specifically used physics as such, though in some of the microwave and RF stuff I worked on it came in handy. I was a relative maths deadbeat, I reached my maths high-water-mark at Green’s theorem so perhaps I could have taken things further if I hadn’t had that limitation 😉 Differential equations was where the wheels came off for me there…


    suggests that graduates equipped with such skills will be able to demand significant salaries in the future

    possibly, though it depends if this is in demand in the UK in 10 years’ time. Will we be designing stuff then? It is possible, but I don’t know if it is probable. When I look at Norman Kreisel in the Grauniad compared to pretty much any of the others. I would say to my thirty-year younger alter ego Go to Germany, young man. I have family connections there, but even without that, it seems an easy win, I would take my Imperial College Physics BSc and knock on their doors, even if I had to study German as a foreign language before.

    @g > UK salaries for engineers are quite low by American standards

    Remember we don’t have to pay on top for healthcare 🙂 I looked at this when I applied to HP near LA and some of the costs seemed awesome, though the lifestyle was also awesomne. Engineers with a house with a pool, that was so out of this world…..


  8. Hah, I sort of agree with Lemondy and I sort of agree with you. I agree with him on the economy, for sure:

    The irony is the smart students are the ones who could afford to do media studies or similar. In reality, most of the decent publishing jobs will go to at ‘worst’ classic arts degree holders.

    I was at a wedding of young people last summer ‘in the provinces’ where I met a swathe of early 20 somethings who mainly were jobless, temping or had ‘McJobs’. All had done silly degrees.

    I’ve a 3000 word article on why it might be worth skipping university that I need to finish.


  9. @Monevator, that post sounds good, that’s two of those you owe your readers 😉

    Sounds like a good ‘un. That anecdote from the trenches seems to support it’s thesis. The entire contents of my ISA so far wouldn’t be enough to pay for university – I’d never have gone for it today!


  10. In fact, there is a shortage of dieticians in the NHS – for which, in order to qualify, you need to start with a degree in nutrition. Because of the rise in illnesses like diabetes, etc there is a growing need for properly qualified dieticians.

    If you take an NHS-recognised degree course, you don’t have to pay tuition fees (because you spend a lot of your time during the 4-year BSc working in NHS facilities). That might also help explain the popularity of this degree course…


  11. @Jane Thanks for the correction – my error/lack of general knowledge there 😉

    Mind you, I don’t need to study nutrition to know what we need to do about increasing diabetes. Basically collectively eat less, eat less pre-processed sugary crap, perhaps get out more and not get fat. Alternatively take the line if our grandmother wouldn’t recognise it, don’t eat it…

    It is good to hear the NHS is being proactive about its future personnel, however!


  12. To be fair a lot of todays youth do actually realise that “fun” degrees ” courses no longer provide paying jobs – and end up using uni as a rite of passage to do a pet project for a few years, then dropping back in to the rat race (often working in offices, call centrees etc) though the unis are guilty of perpetuating the false optimism of the 1990s when the “meedja” actually *did* pay.

    Worth remembering that the rise of digital media has totally and permanently wiped out *thousands* of paying jobs including many technical jobs based around science and engineering – for instance today vinyl gramophone records are a niche market (I think they are now only made in Eastern Europe), and far less people are now needed to make a music track of a video/film.

    Also the job market for creative jobs has been diluted for 10-15 years by unpaid internships.

    I do however agree with Lemondy there should be mixed courses, and particularly ones for journalism and the creative industries should be taught alongside other European languages, as the English language creative industries are diluted both by American culture and competition from other foreigners who speak English well.

    The British TV industry which I once used to work in as an engineer has been dying on its arse since the 1990s. Even Doctor Who seems to be made mostly in the USA nowadays. I don’t even watch it nowadays and my TV still has a CRT and might even be one of the last sets made by Philips at Lowestoft!

    Even in the 90s the the arts section of the Grauniad was fit only for lining the kittens litter tray, although the home section particularly crime news and also news on the Bosnian war was really good quality.

    TBH there is still a fair bit of demand for local crime reporters and spin doctors of various kinds, and a lot of small businesses even here which act as PR agencies although competition is still intense.

    The Grauniad itself might be making a loss but the wider group owns various local papers in Reading which are doing quite well to be fair.

    I suspect though a lot of the actually “bright eyed youngsters” turn down these opportunities because they are “boring and parochial” or they “don’t want to spread bad news” but clearly this is where the demand is!

    I don’t like the tabloids exagerration nor their illegal use of surveillance, but good accurate local reporting on crime and incidents such as road traffic collisions (which helps unearth problem areas in a community) is a good thing. I actually make a habit of only buying an Evening star when there is interesting crime report in there.

    I did try studying electronics but never wanted to be there – and was more interested in the hedonism of the 1990s rave days, and dropped out by 1992. However in the long term this didn’t hurt my career prospects as I have a genuine interest and passion in technology and can put up with the more boring tasks and long hours, and this is the skill not often taught at uni or learned by younger folk.

    I work for a relatively successful local small business and have seen at least two young workers quit through mental health issues. They were *not* “faking it”, their conditions were genuine and confirmed by NHS professionals but what tipped them over the edge was a rise in new business causing a very slight extra rise in workload, rather than fears over redundancies etc…


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