Subject choices in higher education
What is the key driver of student choice when it comes to choosing a degree programme? Well, there probably isn’t one key driver, but any list of the top five or so would have to include this: whatever you’ve just read in the newspapers. When I became President of Dublin City University in 2000 the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was roaring, and driving the boom was the IT sector, and in particular the software industry. So back then everyone wanted to study computing, including those with no visible talent for information technology beyond being able to browse the web. Shortly afterwards the dot.com bubble burst, and the next thing we knew was that demand for computing and electronic engineering collapsed; and for years it did not recover, despite the well-publicised evidence of huge skills shortages and high value vacancies in the industry.
For the next few years everyone wanted to do some course of relevance to the construction industry, as Ireland’s building sector was booming. Then came the recession and the crisis in the industry, and suddenly nobody wanted to study architecture, surveying or civil engineering. And now we hear that these courses have once again taken off, as news emerges of growth in construction and higher house prices.
These phenomena are not at all unique to Ireland. In the North-East of Scotland, where the oil industry dominates the local economy, it has been hard to get young people to go for a career in an industry that some media reports claim is in decline (which it isn’t). However that industry has a major shortage of skilled employees, and will have for years to come.
The reasons for all of this are of course complex, but one question one has to ask is how good the advice is that students get when making their choices. It seems not to occur to some of those offering guidance or taking decisions (often parents) that today’s news is irrelevant to a choice that will produce no actual employment decisions for another few years, by which time everything will probably have changed. Students should, on the whole, go for the subjects they feel they would enjoy learning; and those offering them guidance should remember that almost all trends are transient, that we know very little now about tomorrow’s jobs, and that the value of the knowledge, skills and values taught in a course will almost always out-last the ups and downs of any particular sector of the economy.
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