On the face of things the question of choosing a course above the university might appear to be another chicken and egg dilemma; which came first or which is more important. Whilst I would love to announce that I have the definitive answer to the proverbial chicken and egg conundrum, alas I am not that fortunate. However, regarding the course or location conundrum help is at hand. We have data to shine some light on what is a frequent debate in homes, schools and colleges across the UK, from Lands End to John O’Groats. Our sources are The Office of National Statistics (Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013) and The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
This assessment is muddied because there are numerous degree courses and 154 recognised UK universities. Further, the title question does pre-suppose a better or worse scenario, which putting aside the obvious existence of Father Christmas, cannot be sensibly denied. Therefore, notwithstanding subjective elements such as job satisfaction, it is sensible to regard objective measurements of employment rate and the average gross annual wage as useful comparative measures. Let the debate begin!
The data from the National Statistics report (2013) clearly show that when it comes to employment rate, graduates in medicine and related subjects, science and technology or STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fare better than those with humanities, language and social science qualifications. At best medicine hits 95% while Humanities scores 84%. This picture is reinforced when we examine average gross annual wage. At £46,000 medicine is more than twice that reported by media and information studies graduates. Drawing a conclusion after analysing the question in this way is too simplistic, useful but simplistic.
Let us turn our attention to the graduate, university, employer triangle, specifically, ‘graduate prospects’ viz, the employability of graduates on completion of their course at university. It would be difficult to argue that this should not be used as a means of addressing our question. Using data spread over five years, those universities with higher overall ranks such as Oxbridge, UCL, Kings’ College, Imperial, LSE, St Andrews, Durham typically have a better graduate prospects rating. The data is fairly conclusive. However, when we throw the issue of course (subject) into the melting pot it becomes clear that we should not be comparing universities with vastly different values for graduate prospects.
To tackle our version of the chicken and egg we are therefore left with looking at a tight group of degree subjects from a tight group of universities. When we do this a trend emerges, and therefore a possible answer. Data suggests that graduate prospects for a STEM graduate is typically 5 to 10 points greater than studying subjects such as law, English or Communication & Media. This would appear to be trend irrespective of university rank.
So, what is the answer, what’s more important – course or university. The data does lean towards the university coming up trumps. But as with any good debate there is always at least one caveat. Is it better to study a non-STEM subject at a higher ranked university or, a STEM subject at a lower rated university? The two polar extremes are clear - best prospects when studying STEM at a highly ranked university, and least when studying non-STEM at a lower ranked university. As is often the way there is a fuzzy no man’s land between these extremes.
A final thought. What about those universities such as City and Warwick who have established a reputation for excellence in a particular discipline. City University and optometry spring to mind. What if after graduating you no longer wish to be an optometrist? Does the overall university status work in your favour?