By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
So it is "no bad thing" if students abandon philosophy, literature and history and turn to nursing, social work and engineering.
That was the view of Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell in response to the latest UK university applications figures.
These appeared to show a "top-up fees" effect, with many universities showing a big decline in applications overall and an apparent trend away from academic courses towards vocational ones.
Certainly there were some surprising "fallers" in the popularity stakes for some courses starting in 2006: philosophy (-3.9%), English (-4.5%), and history (-7.8%).
These are all very popular subjects, which until now had been attracting rising numbers of applicants. Just 12 months ago, the applications for 2005 entry looked very different: philosophy (+12.8%), English (+4.7%), and history (+8.9%).
This reversal of fortunes cannot be attributed simply to the general fall in applications, as the numbers seeking to study philosophy, English and history all fell by more than the overall decline of 3.4%.
There does seem to be some sort of shift happening here; while student applications in some traditional academic subjects are falling, other subjects are registering remarkable increases.
Medicine, nursing, social work, civil engineering, chemical engineering and subjects combined with business and administration are all up.
Although the trend from academic to vocational is not entirely consistent (law and accounting applications are both down this year and maths is up), this does suggest that students are now weighing more carefully the higher costs of getting a degree against the likely return in employability.
Boosting earning power
Bill Rammell's comments revealed that this is a trend the government would like to encourage.
But is it really the case that a vocational degree will necessarily boost your earning power?
A recent report into the early career experiences of graduates, "The Class of '99," from the University of Warwick, suggests that vocational degrees do improve job chances.
It looked at graduates four years after they had completed their degree and discovered what proportion were employed in so-called "non-graduate occupations" - in other words jobs that do not normally require a degree for entry.
Not surprisingly, graduates in medicine and related subjects were the least likely to be in non-graduate jobs. Only just over 5% were in this position four years after graduation.
Other subjects where fewer than 15% were in non-graduate jobs included education, law, engineering, mathematics and computing.
By contrast, those most likely to be in non-graduate jobs four years after graduating included those who had studied humanities (28%), arts (27%), and social sciences (24%).
Before going further, I should stress that I do not believe going to university is solely about improving job prospects or future earning power.
In a purely personal example, I recently completed an MA in history, which, while it may not have boosted my career prospects, was both great fun and undoubtedly developed new skills, including some unexpected ones such as database handling and PowerPoint presentations.
So I would be the last person to encourage anyone to shun the arts or humanities.
But if you are a young person (which manifestly I am not) facing a five-figure debt on graduation, it is quite understandable if the financial return figures highly on your criteria for course selection.
However, things may not be quite as simple as they seem. The latest survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) suggests that subject choice is less important than evidence of broader skills when employers are trawling for new talent.
They are not finding what they want. According to the AGR, almost half of Britain's top companies did not expect to receive "sufficient applications from graduates with the correct skills".
In particular, employers found difficulty recruiting graduates with "softer skills such as team-working, cultural awareness, leadership and communication skills, as well as academic achievement".
This highlights a further dilemma for students: is it better to focus on studying hard to get a good degree (as employers increasingly use the upper/lower second divide as the criteria when drawing up short-lists of applicants) or should time in the library be sacrificed to those extra-curricular activities that will develop "soft" skills?
So developing the right set of skills may be just as important as subject choice. If this is so, then a degree in, say, history, continues to be not only a worthwhile choice in itself but also a good route to employability.
After all, the skills of a history graduate are likely to include: the ability to conduct original research, to present complex issues in a seminar, to write and communicate well, and to handle and manipulate numerical data.
No easy answers
The other advantage of an academic degree is that it provides the flexibility that may be missing from a narrow vocational course. Predicting which vocations will be recruiting in the future is a tricky business.
The public sector has grown considerably in recent years. Hence the big rises in those taking degrees in medicine, nursing, social work and education.
But how long will that demand continue?
Within the business sector, the AGR survey suggests that the biggest growth in graduate vacancies in 2006 will be in: transport and logistics, the oil business, insurance and finance. You will not need a specific vocational degree for most jobs in these sectors.
There are, I'm afraid, few easy answers for young people trying to decide which course to follow at university, or indeed whether to go at all.
It would, however, be a mistake to think that the only way if improving future employability and earning power is to take a vocational course.
What matters most is whether the course offers a chance to develop useful, broad skills and whether you think you will enjoy it enough to work hard and get a good class of degree.
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