The people's view on degrees most likely to lead to work

Law, English and maths top list of subjects seen as useful in the job market. Melanie Newman writes

January 21, 2010

Degrees in law, mathematics and English are seen by the general public as being the most useful to job seekers, according to new research.

The study also finds that, in general, graduates with science and language degrees are seen to have better employment prospects than their peers in the arts.

Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, asked about 500 people how they believed 20 university degree subjects affected students' career prospects.

Law, the only vocational subject included in the list, received the highest rating, while fine art, anthropology and theology were considered the least useful subjects.

In a forthcoming paper for Higher Education Review, Professor Furnham says career advisers should investigate students' beliefs about the employment prospects offered by university courses.

"Career counsellors tend to focus on matching people's interests, abilities and traits with the requirements of a job, rather than on perceptions of employment prospects," he says. "Nevertheless, some people choose to study certain disciplines for their vocational potential and financial rewards rather than because they find them intrinsically interesting."

David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, is working with software giant Microsoft to develop a computer database that will give an indication of the job prospects attached to specific degrees.

The project was prompted by concerns that students do not currently get enough information to help them make the right choices about what and where to study.

Public perceptions about the value of courses may also have implications for the way higher education is managed and funded.

For a paper published in 2000, Professor Furnham asked members of the public to help a hypothetical university decide whether to save or close certain departments.

He found that the courses participants most wanted to save were English, then maths. Those they were most willing to cut were media studies, followed by zoology.

In a third study, published in Higher Education Review last year, Professor Furnham and a colleague at the University of Vienna asked 315 Austrian citizens which of a list of 34 university courses they would sacrifice first.

They were also asked which courses they thought would boost the life chances of graduates the most.

The courses deemed most deserving of funding, such as biology and medicine, were also the ones seen as most likely to enhance graduates' life chances.

Arts and humanities subjects, such as theology, were seen as least deserving and least likely to improve life chances.

"This is in marked contrast to the way decisions about funding are arrived at within academia or among administrators," Professor Furnham says in the paper.

"For such groups, funding opportunities tend to be determined by market forces, existing research avenues or future areas of interest ... to the extent that universities remain publicly funded, it will be important to examine the perceptions and attitudes of taxpayers."

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