Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Degree or no degree.

My resolve is weakening slightly on the question of whether our children need a degree in this employment climate.

For a few weeks now Ben has been articulating his thoughts upon what he would like to study, if he actually wants and needs to study for a degree and if so, which subject will he choose to read?

This is a crucial one- many young people will have no clear idea about what they actually want to study and almost 'fall' into higher education.
So, deciphering what one would like to study must come first and then whether they need a degree or if it will enhance their chances of gaining a more fulfilling, better paid (sorry, but money eventually has to be discussed!) job at the end of three or even, four, years.
(Of course we aren't here discussing those wanting a career in medicine, law or any other profession that a degree is essential.)

This decision will be paramount in their lives- spending that length of time studying in depth a subject of their choosing is a tall order. It may even be life changing. Much prayer and time is required for them to know this is what God wants them to be doing. Discerning their vocation is the most imperative task of their young lives.

Ben is swayed, mostly by his parents, but also now from his peers and his teachers in sixth form.

Our debates go something along these lines- I, who actually have a degree in English Literature, altercate about why one needs a degree, yet my husband, who has no A levels, or degree, argues that a degree is that passport to a more desirable job at a higher level, more stimulating and challenging work. He also feels strongly about gaining a degree (or at least a few A levels!) as he himself found it so tough getting a good job even though he was as astute as the next man.. but a majority of companies wouldn't look past the fact he had no degree on his CV.

So Ben does lots of head nodding and turning from one parent to the other in these discourses! He realises that both are valid points plus of course, every person is different and will seek diverse things.

This belief of my husband's is one to take into serious consideration though.
Places of employment are still seeking workers with degrees this is true. In a time when there are fewer jobs but so many people wanting them, a degree may still be one of the only ways to set one apart from others and give them a more fruitful chance.

I'm not  wholly convinced!
Even though I often wonder how useful my degree has been to me; teaching didn't appeal to me nor did I feel any passion towards (dubious) jobs like journalism etc.
I ended up following my heart and my true passion- working with children and adults with severe learning and physical disabilities. I was 'over qualified' my new boss told me, yet nothing would have torn me away from my work.

My husband on the other hand has taught himself many demanding computer and writing courses, paid to do extra qualifications and then purely by merit and amiability he has climbed the work ladder but he claims, having no degree has been a major stumbling block for advancing.

As we battle on trying to decide whether degrees are the right course for our children, they in the mean time need to  begin making some life changing decisions. Let us keep praying fervently and entrust them to the Most Holy Family to find them worthy, meritorious work in this ever changing and morally corrupt world!


  1. My daughter Rachel has just finished her A levels and has made a positive decision not to go to university despite expecting good A level results (she should get at least ABB and could get AAA). She knows that she wants to work rather than study, and that she would like to work in something in the media / marketing / techie line. She started applying for apprenticeships about 3 months ago and has just been offered one of these digital marketing apprenticeships:

    There seem to be a growing number of what you might call professional apprenticeships, leading to careers that are normally thought of as being only for graduates such as accountancy, or that are intended to give a jumpstart into a successful career. The best apprenticeships are very competitive and are looking for bright, motivated kids. They are far more selective than universities, which are essentially asking for specific A level grades and a decent application form. To get her apprenticeship Rachel had to put together an application that would stand out from the crowd, pass a telephone interview, and then go for a 3 hour interview / assessment including group exercises and a powerpoint presentation to demonstrate her work.

    The best apprenticeship schemes get young people into proper jobs where they are expected to take on real work (it isn't a case of starting at the bottom making the tea!), and they give a lot of support to make sure that the apprentices succeed and are equipped with the right skills. At least, that is the impression we have got so far. Hopefully that is the way it will actually work in practice!

    The way Rachel's apprenticeship works is that the training company select the apprentices, give them initial training, and then place them with an employer for a year. They work for the employer for 4 days a week and spend one day a week at the training company studying for a digital marketing qualification. One thing that has impressed me is that the training company do their best to makes sure the apprentices are carefully matched with their employer. Rachel will get interviews with about 3 companies which she has been told are as much for her to decide if the company is right for her as the other way around. I don't think graduates get that luxury!

    Whether she will hit a point in the future where she is handicapped by the lack of a degree is obviously an unknown. My feeling is that the possible disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of getting an early start on building up experience and skills. Also it is always possible to get a degree later on.

  2. Alexia comments;

    DS wants to do Maths - I don't think you can 'do maths' for a living without a degree - same with dd who wants Medicine. But I don't see the point in taking on debt if you don't *need* it - and quite frankly I don't think degrees are *that* valuable if they are not from a pretty top Uni - too many people have them and too many courses just aren't *really* degrees. Now that you have to pay however old you are there is no need to get a degree straight away. I think experience is the best first option as it will help discern if that *is* the right course and career path for them. Then if you do do a related degree the study will be all the more relevant and interesting!

  3. It is interesting to look at the process by which A level students automatically progress to University. In my son's 6th form it is virtually unheard of for a pupil not to progress straight to Uni (even gap years are very rare and not encouraged). On average between 15-25 pupils from his school will gain Oxbridge places and /or places for medicine. It looks great from the outside but the reality is that many of these boys are not choosing this path for themselves and some are quite resentful of it, feeling they have no choice but to follow their parents' desires.
    I was astonished at one of the meetings held to discuss Uni applications that the teacher had to repeatedly emphasise that the choice of subject and institution must ultimately lie with the pupil and not the parent. I had naively taken that for granted; clearly most parents had not. The result is that this school, which I take to be a fairly typical grammar school, contains a good number of young men who are heading off to study for degrees they do not particularly want (so you hear comments like " I have to study medicine but I have no intention of becoming a doctor", 'I'd love to study English but my parents have decided I'll be a biochemical engineer.")

    I realise this pertains more to the choice of subject than to the more fundamental question of 'uni or no Uni' but it reflects the predominant culture of our 'better' schools - you will go to uni, the only question is what you will study. Again, my son would say there were plenty of boys applying to Oxford or Russel group unis for the sake of the institution, not because they had any burning desire to study that particular subject. There's a slight cynicism about it.

    In the end, my son (also predicted A's , or at least AAB - we'll see!) has jumped off the bandwagon and not applied at all. There were certainly shocked faces in the school when he announced that. At the moment we are treating it as a 'gap year' but he has no deferred entry secured. Although it is a little nerve-wracking, we do feel happier with his taking a year out to really think things through rather than simply going through the motions as he was last year. Time will tell as to whether or not he has missed out, made some irrevocably bad decision, ruined his chances of going to a decent Uni and all those other terrifying things which the majority of parents seem to think will happen.

    Perhaps it's the background in home-education: when you've been outside the system for so long, you are less prone to feel the typical 'school parent' anxieties, or at least not to the same degree. We've been unconventional thus far; it's not so surprising that our children are happy to look into alternative ways of doing things and are not afraid to risk stepping aside from the more well trodden paths. Isn't that a kind of confidence we have given them, and perhaps something to be celebrated - though it inevitably entails more nail biting for us!

  4. English Literature graduates are notorious for altercating, not to mention vacillating!

    Universities and courses are often split into 'selecting' and 'recruiting'. Those that select - they can choose between able students - usually run courses that are worth studying, and award degrees which are worth having. Those that recruit - they need to fill places, and whether the courses are worth doing is more debatable, depending on what you want to get out of them.

    Quite an important question is whether a potential student is likely to gain admission to a worthwhile course at a selecting university (a 'top' university, if you like).

    There's a considerable difference in employment prospects, to mention only one factor, between those who have a degree from a 'top' university, and those who just have a degree. There's a pretence that all degrees are equal, but in practice nobody believes it.

    For those who already have degrees, ask yourself, would I have preferred not to have gone to university and done a degree. It's one thing to debate the worth of university for other people, but there aren't that many who would have preferred not to have done degrees themselves. That's an interesting perspective.

  5. I'm sure Amanda, and other commenters here, are right that it's necessary to weigh up the advantages of a degree (access to many professions, possibly higher salary) against the disadvantages (astronomical cost). And those considerations would, of course, be affected by the quality of the university and course. Alexia puts her finger on it when she says that many degrees aren't worth much, and of course in those circumstances a degree would not bring about the hoped-for advantages.

    However, I think it's essential to hold on to the true purpose of a degree: which is not to provide you with skills useful to a future employer, or even to open up the possibility of a profession. Studying at university is purely about the formation of the mind, the education of the individual - it is an end in itself. Therefore, unless a child has a genuine desire for the education itself - not for what he hopes it might lead to - university would be a waste of time.

  6. Thanks Amanda,

    I just posted this;

    With DD1 now 11 we are now beginning to discuss these questions with her and
    your posts are proving invaluable.
    I also note interestingly that it is people who do not have degrees who
    argue most vociferously in favour of going that route, as a priority.

    My degree (in Modern Languages; I studied at Newnham College, Cambridge) was
    absolutely what I needed at that time;
    not just academically but also psychologically, socially and emotionally.
    It was a truly extraordinary life-changing and enhancing experience and
    formed not just my capacity to think and to articulate but also my sense of
    who I am.
    I became a different and I think a better person for it.

    However, for various reasons I do not see a degree as the automatic choice
    for our daughters;
    * In mainstream schools, I saw too many children channelled down the same
    route their parents took and who as a result fail to find their true
    * degrees have changed and now increasingly are more about training than
    about education in the true sense
    * the exam mill may seriously undermine a child’s love of learning and their
    * given the (to my mind iniquitous) fees issue and lack of grants, degrees
    have become for many people a set of golden handcuffs,
    preventing graduates from fulfilling their dream of owning a home, getting
    married and starting a family.

    In short, the way things stand, embarking on a degree course (or even the
    exams needed to apply for one)
    may not only cramp a child’s sense of self and intellectual development
    it may prevent him or her from finding their true vocation...
    which really would be the ultimate and genuine failure, from the point of
    view of a Catholic educator.

    I will print off your post and let DD read it and discuss it with her.

    many thanks & warmest regards,
    Karen in Cambridge

  7. A very interesting discussion!

    David, in answer to your question, I do admit that my three years at university were crucially formative and thoroughly enjoyable and I have no regrets whatsoever about my choice of degree or university. My husband and I (we met whilst studying at the same College) both felt that we were there providentially, and we have always spoken in very positive terms about it to our children. In other words, we certainly have said nothing to discourage our eldest from applying to Oxford (or any other good Uni) if that is what he wishes to do.

    Having said that, perhaps I'm getting cynical in my old age but I do wonder about how degree courses and the institutions offering them have changed over the past twenty years. I wonder how many degrees are really designed to (or taught in such a manner as to) teach people to think clearly and articulate their thoughts effectively. Those two characteristics used to be taken for granted with any worthwhile degree (not just at Oxford). They were, as Lucy mentions, the main point of a degree (even one that was preparing someone for a profession, be it politics, law or the church), but they seem to be less prominent now. Perhaps this is unfair - it is only an impression!

    I do have one concrete example, though: my own degree course (Theology) is no longer available but has been watered down (in pc terms 'improved') at Oxford by being transmogrified into 'Theology with Religious Studies'. Arguments about the merits of content aside, the very nature of theology as a rigorous academic subject ('the Queen of the Sciences' as the medievals termed it) is diluted when it becomes the study of religion instead. It becomes some kind of social science.

    One last point: as Karen mentions, the good Unis are these days hung up on super exam grades which our own home-educated young people, aiming for a top Uni place, need (normally) to achieve. It's difficult sometimes for a young person to take on faith your assurance that the tedious, turgid 'teaching to the exam' which characterises (and renders intellectually numbing) most A levels, will not continue at degree level. Perhaps it's not surprising, given the intellectual formation typically offered in our secondary level school system, that a young person who knows what a degree ought to be but also knows he may be hard pushed to find what he's looking for, is not 100% convinced about the merits of pursuing University level education just because that's what's all his peers are doing. As I said, we don't discourage him, but we do understand his hesitation.

  8. From Dr Madeleine Suttie (thanks, Maddy!)

    Hi Amanda I enjoyed reading this and share many of your sentiments especially in relation to whether a degree is needed for certain vocations. Especially in this climate of proliferation of poor quality education- however I do think that education should not be viewed purely as a utility. You assert that your English literature degree was not useful but I would say that usefulness is not the only reason why further study can be valuable. I am not sure what you studied but a degree in literature can be exceptionally valuable not only to human flourishing but to assisting in the education of ones own children and deepening ones understanding of humanity. Education can be a good in itself despite not having any immediate or obvious link to employment - when it is of a high quality of course.