A question of degrees

Chris Litras, Associate Director, Randstad Construction & Property 

Why a re-examination of UK tertiary education could help the civil engineering sector and tackle the skill shortage

EARLIER in the year we heard that there was to be a fresh crackdown on so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, launched by the Office for Students. Courses with high drop-out rates and low potential for graduate employment will be scrutinised, while universities offering them will be threatened with financial penalties – degrees that fall short could be barred from revising funding for student loans.

Universities are also set to start looking at whether their courses get students into jobs which help the environment. In a move to address public concerns about potentially low-value courses Universities UK, which represents vice chancellors, has published a list of metrics which institutions can use to decide whether their courses are delivering value for money.

As well as yardsticks (such as student drop-out figures and the number of graduates ending up in highly skilled employment), universities will look at factors, such as whether courses help people get jobs with a primary function of positive environmental activity. Under the proposals, from 2023, universities will publish statements on their websites setting out how they will monitor their courses and take action with those deemed low-value.

Track record

Now, on the one hand, universities in the UK have a strong track record of delivering high-quality courses which equip students with the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to progress to rewarding careers. They benefit society. No wonder Tony Blair has called for 70% of young people to go on to higher education. The former PM, who set a target of 50% when he was in government, wants the proportion to rise to 60% by 2030 and 70% by 2040 (around 53% of today’s school leavers go on to higher education). Why? Because it would significantly raise the rate of productivity growth.

You aren’t going to raise the productivity level if all these extra undergraduates are reading pointless subjects. But the expansion of access to Britain’s universities has not been without its flaws. Indeed, the government is now being lobbied to now get more people into apprenticeships by Euan Blair, Tony’s son. Fair enough. You aren’t going to raise the productivity level if all these extra undergraduates are reading pointless subjects.

Given how much public subsidy there is still going to higher education it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the country to concern itself on the quality of university courses.

Outcomes and employability

Greater focus on outcomes and employability may help concentrate the minds of would-be under-graduates when they are applying for courses, too. Shouldn’t they be choosing quality courses which may well give them an advantage in the job market? Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested that men taking creative arts courses experience an average net loss of about £100,000 across their lifetime compared to if they had not gone to university. At 25 higher education providers, fewer than half of students who start a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment (or further study) within 15 months.

One think tank crunched the numbers to identify 40 courses, across all universities, that failed to reach a benchmark of 60% of students finding professional or managerial level work after graduation. At Birkbeck, 32% of students who finish their degree go on to get a professional job or go into study within 15 months – less than a third. The University of Wolverhampton, London Metropolitan, and London South Bank had multiple courses on the list. At University College Birmingham, BSC Bakery & Patisserie Technology students – who learn how to make artisan bread – have a 15% chance of rising to the challenge of a professional job within 15 months.

No wonder complaints about degree courses reached the highest level on record last year, prompting the government to warn that universities will be investigated if they fail to return to in-person teaching.

Shake up

No one is going to do a module in David Beckham as part of their physics degree.Franky, this shake-up could be a blessing not only for the country, but also for civil engineering surveying. It could help tackle the skill shortage. The more that tertiary education is focused on relevant and meaningful competencies for geospatial engineers and other early-career stage surveying professionals, the better for the long-term future of our trade. We need more young people coming in at the bottom and learning the ropes (lasers), coming to study off the back of salient degrees (most employers will prefer a potential recruit to have a relevant surveying degree).

Civil or structural engineering, earth science, environmental science, geographical information science, geography or physical geography, geology, land or estate surveying, mathematics, physics, surveying and mapping science – these are all potentially pertinent degree subjects. Applied golf management, or bed selling studies, however, are not so much – and no one is going to do a module in David Beckham as part of their physics degree.

And there’s limited scope to argue that business and management degrees are going to help the environment. On the other hand, civil engineering surveyors are responsible for everything from roads, bridges, and tunnels; to houses, airports, and systems for running water. A greater focus on positive environment activity is good for the profession. 

Chris Litras, Associate Director, Randstad Construction & Property