As the Government’s review of Post-18 Tertiary Education moves forward, we continue to deliberate about the value, the benefit and the returns from higher education. The level of tuition fees have, in particular, thrown this matter into sharp relief.

There are, of course, many measures that can be used to assess value, benefit or return. But an important one for prospective students is what happens next to those who successfully graduate.

If graduates from one course do well, applicants to it will follow in their footsteps. Or so it goes. Understanding the destinations of university graduates (and how much they earn) has become a business in its own right.


A vocational ratio

But it is not an exact science – different factors and variables are in play. Research recently published by HEFCE shines a spotlight on an aspect of this discussion by examining the vocational nature of degrees and the impact on employment outcomes.

The analysis included the development of an ‘Occupational Subject-Concentration Ratio’ (OSCR) for each subject area. It considered what proportion of employed first-degree graduates are employed in the three most common highly skilled occupations associated with the subject. The idea being that subjects with a higher ratio (close to 1) are more vocational.

Unsurprisingly, graduates who studied medicine or dentistry have a high OSCR (over 0.9). And it is noted in the research that these subjects have direct routes into specific occupations, where there is high demand. So it is highly likely that they will find work soon after graduation.

Some subjects, by their very nature, could lead to a diversity of occupations. By choosing a subject with a lower OSCR, the student is keeping their options open by not specialising too early.

Making informed choices

The research opens up an important and timely discussion about choice and, more specifically, informed choice.

Making this information more available can only help inform decision-making. Some students may want a clear route from their degree into a related occupation, and so it would be sensible to choose a subject which is more vocational.

And a student who does not wish to decide on a career when they choose their degree, may choose something less vocational, knowing this is likely to give them more options after graduation.

With the employers we work with at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) we see a similar split. For some employers, specific areas of their business require specific skills. But for other roles they need a broader skill set.


Academic and vocational

Still, that’s not to say that to offer greater choice courses should be one or the other – academic or vocational. Instead, we can expect courses to offer both and students to consider both.

Take accountancy and applied mathematics. Both have an academic side and also apply in the real world.

So this needn’t be a binary discussion. It’s not a case of ‘academic or vocational’, but more a case of ‘academic and vocational’.

By Dr Joe Marshall, NCUB Chief Operating Officer and Director of Strategy