Why we should encourage students to follow their passion

Nurturing students’ enthusiasm for a subject during their time at university will give them a solid grounding to respond to a lifetime of career changes, says Trevor McMillan 

August 15, 2018
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A recent article in The Sunday Times included a suggestion from the head of Ucas that parents should ensure that their children do not just follow their passions when they choose their course for university. 

Deciding whether or not to go to university, and which course to study, is clearly a complex and individual process that takes into account a range of pragmatic circumstances and aspirations. But it is absolutely clear that students who take subjects that they enjoy and feel passionate about are likely to be more committed and more successful than those who are steered into subjects that they feel no affinity for. We should not be dampening the ardour of those who want to follow their dreams by studying something of deep personal interest. 

I would be interested to know whether any research has looked at this. I’m sure that many of us in universities have anecdotes that suggest that students pushed into subjects for which they have no or little interest can find it difficult to survive to the end of a course, or indeed to muster any real passion for their subsequent career.

Maybe this is an idealistic view that ignores current economic drivers and social attitudes to the value of a degree in some quarters, but I think it raises a broader question about what we should use as a measure of success in our graduates beyond the usual financial trackers and benchmarks. Is career happiness not a factor?

I’m sure that many of us who speak at graduation ceremonies stress that the experiences and interpersonal skills that our graduates have learned during their degrees are as important as the knowledge that they have acquired. Besides, in some disciplines the half-life of current knowledge is reducing rapidly. A recent Universities UK report has highlighted some work by the World Economic Forum in 2016 that suggested that in some technical subjects, very high proportions of the subject knowledge acquired at one time point will have moved on within three or four years. The will and ability to continue learning through life is therefore even more important than ever before. 

We have also been telling students that for a significant number of them the jobs they will be doing in 20 years from now might not even have been invented yet, with advances in robotics and artificial intelligence as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, meaning that society will demand different things from the future workforce. 

In rapidly changing times a major value of a university education is, in no small part, to develop skills that can be universally applied in society and to develop a level of resilience, flexibility and adaptability in the workplace that will allow our graduates to switch jobs and careers as the threats and opportunities arise during their lifetimes. 

One of the potential problems with using retrospective salary data to inform student choice, or indeed university performance, is that students could be encouraged to follow career paths that will no longer exist. We might not be able to predict what jobs people will be doing, but we do need to be careful not to suggest that long-term success inevitably follows if our students make a particular career choice.

This is why, in part, broad-based programmes such as liberal arts degrees are popular in the US and increasing in popularity in the UK. Such degrees don’t aim to prepare students for a particular job, they prepare them for the workplace by developing these skills in critical thinking, communication and lifelong learning. They also aim to give students a sense of their place in the world which will be important in the changing global political landscape.  

Creating alternatives and developing passions is an important aspect of what universities should do. Highly successful graduates from these liberal arts programmes can be seen in a very wide range of professions.

I firmly believe that a student’s passion for a particular subject at the age of 18 – whether it be in the arts or the sciences – can be nurtured over the course of a three-year degree programme into a solid grounding for a multitude of future paths, providing context, stability and resilience for our rapidly changing world. For those reasons a student’s enthusiasm and zeal for a subject – even those without a fast-track into a highly paid job – should be actively encouraged. 

Trevor McMillan is vice-chancellor at Keele University

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