Ask any first-year university student why they decided to do a degree and – in among their passion for the academic subject they’re studying, their hopes for a never-to-be-bettered social life and the chance for a new-found independence – almost all will say that they believe it will help them get a better job after graduation and improve their long-term career prospects.
This sentiment has changed little over the past two decades but during this time the number of students completing undergraduate degrees has more than doubled, driven in part by Tony Blair’s 1999 target that half of all school-leavers should have the opportunity to go to university, and more recently by the relaxation of admissions numbers that was introduced in 2012 alongside the new £9,000-per-year university tuition fees.
Analysing whether the employment market has kept pace with this rapidly expanding supply isn’t straightforward, but the latest recruitment figures from UK employers and official data showing what new graduates do six months after leaving university suggests there are about 70,000 places annually within the key professions where graduate entry-numbers are controlled, such as those training to be doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians, vets or teachers.
There are a further 30,000-35,000 places available each year on the graduate development programmes run by many of the country’s best-known national and international employers. These schemes are designed to identify the most able university-leavers who have the potential to become future leaders at these organisations and typically offer one or two years of structured training and development to prepare for a fast-tracked career within the company. Such development schemes are often the main route for new graduates joining sectors such as accountancy, investment banking, consulting, law, finance, engineering, research and development, IT and retailing.
Beyond this, there are an estimated 100,000 entry-level jobs advertised annually that require applicants to have a degree in a specific subject or discipline, or simply state that candidates should be graduates.
These opportunities include positions at small and medium-sized employers around the country, who recognise the value that graduates can provide for their organisations, as well as larger employers that recruit graduates directly for specific job functions, sometimes in parallel to their graduate development programmes.
Direct-entry graduate positions won’t necessarily include the same initial focus on training or the accelerated career paths associated with formal development courses but they account for a considerable proportion of the initial vacancies available to graduates each year.
In total, these figures suggest that there are about 200,000 jobs for new graduates annually. And yet in the summer of 2015, an estimated 375,000 final-year students completed first degrees in the UK, almost double the number of graduate-level positions available.
So what does this mean for school-leavers weighing up whether it’s worth going to university and if they’re likely to be making a good “investment” by studying for a degree? In reality, there seem to be two main groups of graduates who do particularly well in the employment market, in terms of finding their first entry-level jobs quickly, earning higher-than-average starting salaries or seeing better progression in the early stages of their career.
The first of these two groups could be described as “vocational specialists”, students who have elected to study a course at university that will provide the qualification – and often the practical training, too – needed for entry into a particular occupation, profession or employment sector after graduation. This could be anything from chemical engineering, architecture, speech therapy or film production, to archaeology, dentistry or software programming.
Depending on the individual’s specialism, these courses can be at any of the UK’s 130-plus universities, anywhere in the country. But what matters is which particular courses do employers rate highly when they’re recruiting graduates for that specialism?
The answer is different for each employment area. For example, the retail management course at Bournemouth University is regularly targeted by many of the UK’s leading retailers, whereas graduates from Coventry University’s automotive engineering course are prized by the best-known motor manufacturers. And for textile design, Sheffield Hallam’s degree course is one of the most sought-after by the fashion industry.
From a practical perspective, fewer than one in five school-leavers knows at the point they make their Ucas application which career they want to pursue after university. But for those who do know that they’re aiming for a particular vocational area in three or four years’ time, the best advice is to work backwards and research the courses that have the most promising employment record for that particular career.
Each university – and publications such as The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide – provides a course-by-course analysis of the destinations of its graduates but there is no substitute for talking directly to employers to see from which degrees they are most likely to be recruiting specialist graduates.
It’s easy to make the assumption that because a place exists for something at university, there will be a corresponding position available in the jobs market.
In reality, there are many oversubscribed vocational courses at well-respected universities where only a very small proportion of new graduates find employment in the area they have been pursuing for their degree, because the programmes have proved to be more popular with school-leavers than they are with graduate employers.
The second group of graduates who consistently do well in the employment market are those who are “good all-rounders” – they have a strong academic record but also have made the most of their extracurricular time at university. They have completed work experience alongside their studies, developed key skills such as leadership, team-working and business acumen, and have used their undergraduate years to research what they want to do for their career.
About 70% of graduate positions in the UK do not require a degree in a particular subject and, as a result, employers are happy to recruit graduates from any study discipline - provided they can offer a range of skills and abilities beyond their formal qualification.
So although employers are often keen to hire university-leavers with a first or a 2:1 degree, recruiters usually have little or no interest in the content of the course that a student has completed. Why should a company that is looking for a graduate to work in marketing worry about the detail of a candidate’s history degree?
To be successful in this part of the graduate jobs market, what is required is a full and varied CV, not just strong A-levels and a good degree. Recruiters for many of the country’s leading graduate development programmes state that academic qualifications make up less than a fifth of their assessment and selection criteria.
The core personal and business skills that applicants have developed – either as part of their degree course or outside it – and the work experience they have undertaken typically play a much bigger role in determining whether a graduate is offered a place or not.
For school-leavers hoping to make the grade as a “good all-rounder”, this means that although it is essential to study a degree subject that they’ll enjoy and do well at, it’s equally important to be at a university that offers the widest possible range of experiences outside of formal studies, and one that is well-regarded by the type of employers who offer graduate development courses.
In this context, the Russell Group of universities continues to fare well, in addition to universities such as Bath, Aston, Lancaster and Strathclyde that enjoy especially close links with employers and offer a high proportion of their students a placement year in industry as part of their degree courses.
Martin Birchall is editor of The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers and managing director of High Fliers Research, a company that has researched the graduate employment market since 1995