In a recent post on this site I raised some questions about the extent to which university places should reflect national economic, social or other needs. But when it come to degree programme choices by students, there is also another dimension, one that I was reminded of when I read the recent publication by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority on the first destination of graduates after they leave higher education (What Do Graduates Do? The Class of 2013). One particular finding is interesting (page 43):
‘Of those employed in Ireland and who responded to this section of the survey, 63% of Honours Bachelor Degree graduates rated the relevance of their qualification as relevant or most relevant to their area of employment. A total of 19% rated their qualification as irrelevant/most irrelevant and 18% were unsure.’
Let us assume here that the question was understood to be about the relevance of their qualification (and not, as the above passage suggests, the relevance of the relevance). Let us assume also that the undefined term ‘relevance’ would have been understood similarly by all respondents. In that case, we are left to conclude that nearly two-thirds of students saw their degree course as being directly tied to their chosen profession, while about 20 per cent thought their studies were not connected with their employment.
This suggests on the one hand that a large number of Irish students see higher education as a vocational process, while a substantial minority do not, apparently, identify the acquisition of transferable skills or other benefits in their university studies. What strikes me here is the apparently binary nature of this assessment: my course is vocationally ‘relevant’, or it is ‘irrelevant’.
I believe in the value of vocational or professional aspects of higher education. But I also believe in the value of university studies more generally, for those who can benefit from them and are suitably qualified to learn. All university studies benefit the learner, or should do.
The value or otherwise of ‘relevance’ in higher education is one of those things we have not yet properly settled. There isn’t a straightforward answer, but there is scope for a good debate, which in turn should have some impact on how students view their studies both before they commence them and after they have entered employment. In the absence of this we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about how students, or for that matter academics, perceive relevance.