Why it doesn’t matter what courses students choose

College courses shouldn’t be seen as routes to employment, says principal Ian Pryce – but instead as an opportunity to students to develop a range of transferable skills
30th July 2021, 8:00am


Why it doesn’t matter what courses students choose

Careers: Why It Doesn't Matter What Courses Students Choose

The death of a famous person is often followed by a flurry of interest in their ideas and achievements. The obituaries of Edward de Bono, who died in June, celebrated his contribution to the way we think, especially the way he championed lateral thinking.

We could do with some better thinking when it comes to our sector, especially making time to look at things from different angles or learning from other organisations. I cannot be alone in feeling despair at the secretary of state’s narrow definition of the purpose of education being to give people the skills that will lead to a fulfilling working life, with students simply churned out to the orders of employers. Similarly, many discussions around our curriculum and careers guidance take a linear approach to vocational choices, assuming a link between courses and jobs that is simply wrong.

Perhaps I should not be too critical as I could be accused of hypocrisy. When I was new in post in the late 1990s, I had a conversation with an advanced level travel and tourism student that has always stayed with me. I asked whether she was hoping to get a great job with EasyJet or Britannia, operating out of nearby Luton airport. Her reply was scathing, she said: “If I was studying French and history A levels would you assume I wanted to be a French historian? Why do you assume I even want to work in travel? It’s just a subject I’m good at. I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet”.

It was a great answer and I hope I’ve never made those lazy assumptions since. Sadly too many in government and elsewhere still make damaging assumptions about students studying vocational and technical subjects in a way they do not for students on academic programmes.

More by Ian Pryce: Do GCSE grades really predict earnings?

Long read: Can mental health be embedded into the curriculum?

Williamson: The purpose of education is skills for work


Choosing a college course: why it’s the skills that matter 

When students leave our college for employment, 63 per cent get a job that is not connected to the subject they studied, compared with 37 per cent that do. That figure does not even vary that much by subject. Students studying construction are no more likely to work in that field than students in sport or business in theirs. When you talk to the students they don’t see it as a problem. They have studied something they enjoyed but know there are a far wider set of options for them in the real world. In that regard, they are no different to young people studying A levels. 

In some ways, you might expect students on academic courses to be more linear in their thinking than those studying vocational subjects. After all, it is a fair bet that if you are taking geography at A level you will be certain you like the subject and know what you are letting yourself in for. Most college vocational subjects have no equivalent pre-16 courses so you are choosing construction, hairdressing or animal science based on other things like college open days, parents’ jobs or second-hand industry knowledge. It makes for a much riskier choice.

However, instead of using all this information to help make student career decisions better and easier, the government doubles down on the idea that study programmes should lead to work in that field. Work experience only counts if it is related to the subject, denying students the opportunity to explore more options for their futures. Courses not specifically and directly linked to perceived skills needs are threatened with de-funding, ignoring the fact that it is people, not courses, that get jobs.

This is where we sorely need De Bono. Our college data shows that your employment prospects correlate highly with the level of the programme when you leave us. Unemployment is 40 per cent if you cash in at level 1; 15 per cent if you go after level 2; 7 per cent after level 3 and 2 per cent after level 4+. The subject does not change the pattern, but can determine your salary.

So if nearly two-thirds of students get jobs outside their subject wouldn’t De Bono suggest maybe everything you learn as a construction student is perfect preparation for that job in care or logistics? Construction projects teach you about teamwork just as do academic science practicals. Travel and hospitality improves your cultural literacy and empathy in the same way that learning languages does. Hairdressers having to understand a client’s detailed requirements learn questioning skills and comprehension just as do those studying history or English. It is our broader skills that we tend to use during our working lives more than our subject knowledge. The reality is the 800 hours or so of practical learning you might get on a two-year programme hardly makes you a master of your craft, it simply gives you enough skill to start in that industry if you choose. Don’t they say mastery requires more like 10,000 hours?

Interestingly, commercial staff recruitment agencies are better at this lateral approach, looking hard to find overlaps between your experience and the demands of the jobs they are being asked to fill. I once heard one tell a construction student to think about the care sector pointing out that what he’d learned about lifting heavy objects meant he’d be invaluable safely lifting people. 

Surely, it is more refreshing to regard what we do as preparing every student for a fulfilling life that will also benefit our society, and to be clear that we accept the majority of students neither want nor expect to be defined by the subject they study.

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