Monday, December 15, 2008

Africa News Today - Earning versus learning debate The cost of getting a degree may affect your choice of subject. But whatever you decide, work hard - employers want candidates with a first or 2:1

Earning versus learning debate

The cost of getting a degree may affect your choice of subject. But whatever you decide, work hard - employers want candidates with a first or 2:1

For most students, the attractions of a degree have always been as much about what you can earn when you start work as about what you will learn. With graduates now expected to accumulate debts of up to £30,000 by the time they leave university, even the academically minded will have more than one eye on their career prospects when they choose a course.

Recent studies have suggested that higher education remains a good financial proposition, as well as broadening the mind. PricewaterhouseCoopers puts the average salary premium at £160,000 over a working lifetime, compared with those who choose to go straight into employment with two good A levels.

However, the accountancy and management consultant found big differences between subjects — a premium of less than £1,000 a year for arts graduates, for example, but almost ten times more for those with a medical degree.

While the majority of graduate jobs do not demand a particular subject, the annual employment statistics tell a different story. When the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects its figures, six months after graduation, significant differences are already beginning to appear.

Some are predictable — such as the clear lead in graduate salaries enjoyed by medics and dentists. But many will be surprised to learn that graduate nurses earn £1,000 a year more than their counterparts in business studies, and that psychology (one of the boom subjects of recent years) languishes near the bottom of the salary league.

Social work is another surprise inclusion in the Top Ten for graduate pay. Indeed, Hay Management Consultants has reported that public sector starting salaries now outstrip the average for private companies, although surveys in mid-career, let alone those of top management salaries, inevitably tell a different story.

Engineers also do well for initial earnings, with all branches of the discipline averaging at least £20,000 a year in 2005. But some big subjects, such as English and biological sciences, are to be found near the foot of the table, with starting salaries for graduate jobs close to £17,000 and the average for non-graduate work below £14,000.

There are similar variations in immediate graduate employment rates, when jobs are classified according to the skills required and the likelihood of progression into normal graduate careers.

There was no measurable unemployment among graduates of medical and dental schools in 2004-05, and very little among nurses, vets, civil engineers or those taking education degrees.

Graduates generally are much less likely than the rest of the population to be unemployed, although the jobless rate reaches 10 per cent in electrical and electronic engineering, computing and art and design.

But more than a quarter of all those completing their degrees start their careers in "non-graduate" jobs, and the proportion exceeds 40 per cent in some subjects.

As the table of earnings here shows, the salary gap between the two types of job can be considerable and, while it is normal to take a menial job to establish a foothold in the performing arts, sport or tourism, the starting point may be a better guide to future prospects in more traditional graduate occupations.

The table of employment rates is ranked on "positive destinations", which encompass any combination of further study and/or jobs classified as graduate work. Like the earnings table, it is restricted to the 32 subjects in this year's Times guide — roughly half of the full range of subjects.

Of those missing from this subset, pharmacy and pharmacology, building and architecture have particularly good employment records, finishing in the Top Ten overall.

American studies and media studies have the least positive destinations when all subjects are included, while archaeology has the lowest starting salary.

But how much notice should prospective students take of statistics on earnings and employment rates that are compiled so early in a graduate's career? Not too much, according to Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), the organisation representing many of the UK's biggest companies.

He says: "Of course, you cannot ignore these figures, but it is easy to oversimplify the message. The main thing is to choose a subject for which you have got a real feel because what employers really want is a good degree."

Three-quarters of AGR members say that they will take graduates of any discipline, although many prefer courses with some numerical content. With nearly a quarter of their vacancies being offered by accountancy firms, this is hardly surprising.

It is certainly reflected in those paying the top salaries: in this summer's AGR survey, banking and financial services were offering an average of £37,000. Only the big law firms, which averaged £35,700, interrupted the domination of numerically-based jobs.

Apart from social work, economics is the only representative of the social sciences or arts near the top of the earnings table. But the AGR survey has a message of hope for linguists, with several companies predicting particular demand for Russian, Cantonese and Arabic, as their business becomes more international.

Other arts subjects may benefit from employability profiles being compiled by the Council for Industry and Higher Education to demonstrate the "soft skills" that graduates can offer to employers.

Gilleard says that the priorities of graduates are changing, too, with more looking beyond the possible salaries in choosing a job.

He says: "The extra debt does not seem to be having the impact that many expected, either in the choice of course or career. And we are finding that those who do go for well-paid, high-pressure jobs are often switching after a while to do something they think they will find more personally rewarding."

For those receiving A-level results today, the die is already cast as far as subject choice is concerned. Even those who go through clearing will be restricted by the courses they took in the sixth form. But there will be a second chance at postgraduate level to change direction, for example through the increasingly popular law conversion course.

Whatever subject you choose, your priority must be to gain a first or upper-second class degree, since this — along with the status of the applicant's university — is the first criterion for selection that most employers make.

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