The Complexity of Degree Subjects

Picture this: you’re 17 and you’re filling out your UCAS application. You have flicked through every university prospectus you can find, attended some open days, and yet, you still have absolutely no clue what degree to choose. This is the rest of your life. At least, that’s what you think.

Many of us have been through this exact situation. And whilst some are destined to be doctors, teachers and dentists – others are fifty before they find their true ‘calling’. We know that social mobility, higher education and graduate employability are key concerns that continue to progress in all developed nations (Bathmaker et al, 2013). We see these key concerns circulating the media daily. An article on LinkedIn last week reported that business and administration is the most popular degree subject in the UK. Sourced from the Financial Times, it was claimed that those studying business are the most likely to get a job after university (aside from medical and dentistry graduates). It got me thinking, how important are degree subjects?

I’m not ashamed to say that throughout my life I have considered many careers. My earliest and first was a ‘pear/pay-er’. I didn’t know the title for a checkout assistant, so I spent most of my childhood with my parents thinking I wanted to belong in a fruit bowl. I loved playing on my toy cash register and setting up shop in the middle of my living room. My second ambition was to be a teacher. I used to print out registers filled with made-up names and buy an abundance of stickers to give to my imaginary pupils. The list goes on, but my longest career ambition was to become a midwife. I done my work experience in a midwifery unit at my local hospital, and I was sure that this was my ‘calling’. But maths and science weren’t my strongest subjects. I gave it my best shot, but realised that enjoyment was more important, and lay the dream of being a midwife to bed.  So, I instead studied what I enjoyed, without thinking too much about the effects it would have on my future degree subject.

Education is significant for the distribution of life chances and crucial for later outcomes. In fact, The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reports that Education and Skills are ‘consistently at the top of the priorities list of the 190,000 businesses the CBI represent’ (CBI, 2018). Educational attainment and labour market outcomes are strongly related. Low educational attainment is more likely to lead to precarious employment outcomes, whilst high educational attainment is more likely to foster social mobility and increasing socio-economic opportunities.

With the abundance of choices, societal pressures and high expectations, you can imagine that when it came time to pick a degree (which at the time I thought would determine the rest of my life) I felt more than a little lost. It takes a simple Google to find out what the Internet deems as a ‘good’ degree, with articles left, right and centre about what degrees will earn you the most money. It’s fair to say that if I was mostly concerned about my wage packet I would probably not be in my final year of Social Policy and Sociology. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. It is no secret that many people do go on to university for the prospect of a better career.

The problem is, research is conflicting. If you Google advice on what to study at university, you will be faced with a BuzzFeed quiz or ‘do what you enjoy’. Helpful. Out of sheer curiosity, I done a BuzzFeed quiz and can reveal I should have studied Literature. Baring in mind the first question was ‘pick your favourite keyring’, I’m not convinced.

It would appear that quantitative subjects not only signal intelligence, but are also more likely to bag you a graduate job. From the age of 11, employers want to see schools improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills – with 82% ranking this among the top three most important areas for actions (CBI/Pearson Education and Skills, 2018). Of course, some professions do require specific degree subjects. A humanities student couldn’t go into an engineering role. In 2012, the CBI report indicated that the subject chosen makes a difference to employers – with 72% saying that they looked out for graduates from certain subject areas (compared to only 46% claiming that degree classification was the most important element). 50% of these employers were looking for students with STEM degrees, in comparison with 2% looking for those with social science degrees. This year, UCAS reported that 40% of employers surveyed said that they preferred to recruit graduates with a STEM subject, and 19% of employers preferred a business-related subject.

There is a great deal of debate around what subjects are ‘harder’ or more ‘worthwhile’. When I was studying German, somebody in a STEM related degree actually said to me ‘but most businesses communicate in English – plus, there’s always Google translate’. Naïve, yes. But it is also naïve to think that these judgements around humanities degrees do not exist.

Interestingly, a poll created by the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians, 2018) showed that companies are increasingly favouring applicants with relevant work experience, whether that be from an apprenticeship or an internship. A survey of 1,000 decision makers, found that 49% preferred to see relevant work experience on a CV, in comparison to 24% who said they would be more willing to take on somebody with a relevant degree qualification. Other qualities that companies looked for was the ability for a candidate to fit into the company culture, and their personality in general.

It’s fair to conclude that not all degrees are created equal. Whilst data shows that recruiters generally favour STEM degree subjects, this could be simply because of the dominance and importance of these career paths. But it is also important to note that intelligence biases do exist.

In saying this, with the developing workplace, apprenticeships are becoming increasingly favoured due to their hands-on approach to the workplace. Co-founded of Arch Apprentices, Ben Rowland, understands the importance of apprenticeships in modern societies.

“These routes offer a great way to gain the skills needed to excel at the job, which a traditional university degree simply doesn’t provide.”

The Office for National Statistics shows that in 2016, the employment rate of those with apprenticeships was 85.6%, compared with 87.8% with degrees. However, the ONS also reported that in 2015, 45.8% of recent graduates in the UK were in jobs that did not require a degree. Considering that many outside of Scotland pay for their university education – this statistic is rather alarming. The changing recruitment requirements may allow more room for not only the development, but the encouragement of apprenticeships. Degrees are often favoured in high schools for those with the grade requirements, but perhaps we should begin to shift our focus?


AAT Survey (2018)

CBI (2018) The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey 2018: how employers view the education system.

Bathmaker, Ann-Marie, Ingram, Nicola & Waller, Richard (2013). Higher Education, Social Class and the Mobilisation of Capitals: Recognising and Playing the Game. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5-6), pp.723–6), p.723–743

Office for National Statistics (2016) Percentage of graduates working in non-graduate roles in London and the UK: 2011 to 2015 / A comparison of the earnings of graduates and apprentices in the UK, 2004 to 2016

Hallinan, M. and Williams, R. A. (1990) ‘Students’ characteristics and the peer-influence process’, Sociology of Education, 63:122-33.

West, A. & Nikolai, R. (2013) ‘Welfare Regimes and Education Regimes: Equality of Opportunity and Expenditure in the EU (and US)’, Journal of Social Policy, 42(03), 469–493.

UCAS (2019)

One thought on “The Complexity of Degree Subjects

  1. A very enjoyable read and insight into differing routes achieving a very similar outcome. Useful read for those preparing for their debut in the big, wide world.


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