The latest round of college offers show that STEM and so-called ‘job-friendly’ courses are on the rise. Could this spell disaster for the graduates of the future?
Just yesterday (20 August), more than 50,000 Irish students received their first-round offers from the Central Applications Office (CAO). The CAO oversees undergraduate applications to third-level institutions in the Republic of Ireland.
This year, so-called ‘job-friendly’ courses (engineering, medicine and teaching) saw a sharp points rise. There are many contributors that can lead to point increases, but increased demand is a major determining factor.
Commentators are concluding that students have fallen out of love with arts courses. Writers such as The Irish Times’ Brian Mooney posit that these economically uncertain times are to blame.
Growing up during the 2008 recession will, as you might expect, inspire risk aversion. Students are attracted to the idea of securing their future. Industry bodies left and right are working themselves into a lather over skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). With this in mind, it’s not surprising that students are flocking to these subjects.
If this new interest in STEM is genuine, that is something worth celebrating. Obviously, here at Siliconrepublic.com, we’re always happy to see young people pursue STEM careers. But is it possible that we’re setting up the graduates of tomorrow for failure?
Industry bodies have good reason to decry STEM skill shortages. The more people that we can get genuinely interested in STEM, the better. If the interest isn’t genuine, however, that’s not going to be much use to people.
The students of today are wading into a jobs market unlike any seen before. Emerging technologies are changing the way people do business. AI in particular is generating a lot of anxieties for workers who are worried they will be done out of a job, not to mention that the rise of the gig economy means precarious contract work is more prevalent than ever. The economic crash played a role in this; contracting is a good option for cash-strapped employers. It can also be attributed to, frankly, unscrupulous business leaders.
Decisions based on pressure
In these conditions, dangling stability in front of hungry eyes will obviously stir students’ interest.
What good are high applicant levels, however, if retention rates fall? If people are doggedly pursuing stability, they may be inclined to push themselves into areas they have no real interest in. In that situation, it’s only a matter of time before people start to fall between the cracks.
Even if they don’t drop out, it’s very possible that people will not go on to utilise their STEM skills. They may move into a non-STEM area and retrain to compensate. Whatever the case, manufacturing interest in certain fields doesn’t benefit employers or graduates.
The fallacy of ‘job-friendly’
Deciding what to study based purely on job prospects neglects the fact that a student will excel more at a subject they like. An incomplete STEM degree isn’t any more valuable than an enthusiastically completed degree in art history.
Also, if we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that ‘hard skills’ aren’t enough to prop up the booming tech industry. Even the most competent data scientist will encounter issues if they can’t problem-solve on a human level. The most fluent software developer still needs to be a good communicator to succeed.
Arts degrees can and do provide these skills to graduates. To push a narrative that they aren’t useful or won’t lead to jobs or security is reductive.
Why choose university?
As well as encouraging students to pursue subjects they may have no real interest in, our society also tends to push people towards third-level education in general. The reality is that third level as it currently exists only rewards a small cohort of people.
The working world is alight with talks about how different forms of work – such as remote working, flexitime etc – are the way forward. That push for diversity doesn’t seem to be promoted to the same extent in education.
Secondary and tertiary education reward one particular type of intelligence. For those to whom academia doesn’t come naturally, third-level education could be a square-peg-round-hole situation.
There are more forms of intelligence than there are systems of education. By not diversifying the ways we allow students to enter the working world, we’re allowing a well of talent to go untapped.
It also creates significant distress for the student, who may think they’re ‘not intelligent’ if they don’t succeed at third level.
Currently, the onus is on the student to make themselves as employable as possible. If employers want to attract the best talent, and if the education system wants to produce the best workers, something needs to change.
Fearmongering to ensure students pick one degree course over the other isn’t the solution. If anything, it just sets them up to regret their choice of degree.