Is it a good idea to push students into doing degrees?

Why is careers education focused on university? Is it really the best option for all pupils, asks Yvonne Williams

Going to university isn't necessarily the best option for every student, says Yvonne Williams

The publication of the Scottish Highers results today will signal the beginning of the Ucas admissions process.

Next week, A-level grades will be published and by the end of the month most students will have confirmed their first- or second-choice degree offers.

This rite of passage over, most will leave home to embark on a journey that will launch them into a profitable career. Degrees will open so many doors…

It must be so. Why else is sixth-form careers education geared almost exclusively to providing tailored advice about courses, how to fill in the Ucas forms, and how to write the distinctive personal statement that will get the student noticed? Holiday coaching in interview technique and mock interviews are there to help participants clinch the deal.

University pressure

Think of all the media columns devoted to each aspect of this annual ritual, and the official or unofficial league tables that exist to show the extent of competition among schools and colleges to get places for their students at the most coveted universities.

But what about the teenager at the heart of all this well-meaning support? For the 18-year-old seeing friends getting university places, the temptation to follow the crowd is all too strong. They are caught in a tidal wave that may beach them in a distant university they may have visited only once. The reality behind the open day/interview is often opaque: a dim vision of new friends, wider-ranging activities…and little of what lies beyond the glossy prospectus.

The actual experience can be a very different and difficult thing. How rarely it seems that the subject studied leads directly into a job – if the post-degree stories of friends and family are anything to go by – except perhaps in the cases of medicine, law and architecture.

Opening doors?

One recent shift I heard of from degree-subject to career was by a student who went from a creative-writing degree to training as a dental nurse. Ella (not her real name) was quite critical of the process that sent her from school and college to university. Reflecting on her decision-making, she admitted that she had chosen the creative-writing degree because she hadn’t really got a strong idea of what else she could do. Everyone seemed to believe that a degree would open doors for her.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. “The wrong degree can close doors,” she said. “No one considers at the time that you can only do a degree once, because that is the only funding that you get.”

She feels now that her university course was not structured in the most helpful way for her. Having just a couple of days a week tuition didn’t suit her. It was too hard to structure her own time in order to produce the assignments. Perhaps this lesson alone is one that A-level students should take in before actually confirming their places.

Arts vs sciences

All was not completely lost for Ella. After graduating, she returned to her home area, found a job in a fish and chip shop for the summer, and reviewed her options. She discovered a corporate dental practice running its own training course, which was free for the participant, leading to qualification as a dental nurse. The structured environment suited her much better, and the direct application of her new learning to the workplace and to providing a much-needed service inspired her to want to improve her qualifications.

Ella had been funnelled into arts-only A levels because her college timetabled arts and humanities against sciences. So she had no opportunity to study the A level in biology that she had really wanted to do alongside sociology and English language. By her own admission, she is no mathematician, and she had no yearning to do chemistry or physics. But she is now relishing studying for biology A level in her own time. It can be tough, because dental nursing is strenuous work in itself, and real motivation is needed to carry on with the A level.

But Ella is finding that her grades are higher than those she achieved in the sixth form, so she is hopeful of success at the end of the course. Her goal is clearly defined: she would dearly love to be accepted on to a two-year course leading to qualification as a dental hygienist, preferably with dental therapy attached, so that she can perform some dental procedures, such as fillings and extractions of baby teeth.

Ella has studied, trained and worked in one dental practice, and undertaken locum work for experience of different practices, including prisons. Unlike with her university course, this time she knows what she is letting herself in for and what her hard work can lead to. Most importantly, she now has a stronger sense of self-knowledge about the role she wants to take in a professional setting and the relationships she wants to enjoy with her patients.

Cautionary tale

It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of schools and colleges fixating on grades and university offers. The student needs to be much more at the centre of what we all do.

A degree in creative writing is absolutely ideal for some students. A former student, who has just graduated from a creative-writing degree, has full funding for a related MA next year. But it’s not right for everyone. I very much doubt that Ella is unique in having undertaken extremely expensive study, only to find herself unsuited to the course and, in fact, quite unhappy with her life as a student.

Things need to change. Here’s how:

  1. There should be a mandatory year off after A levels, spent doing properly paid work, full-time or part-time, so that young people have a realistic idea of what they are aiming for afterwards.
  2. University applications should only begin after results have been issued and work experience has begun. There would then be a much fairer allocation of places, according to results rather than predicted grades. Many, such as the Sutton Trust, would argue that social class and educational background are far too influential in determining who gets places on prestigious courses. And, of course, any reviews of marking would be resolved.
  3. Students would be more mature and independent when starting their courses, so perhaps more resilient when embarking on independent living away from home.
     

The good news in Ella’s case is that she (eventually) found a career she really wanted. Of course, she still has to negotiate all the difficulties of funding herself. Given the shortage of dentists, one would hope the government would provide the funding to fill the gaps.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama at a school in the south of England

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