Why head, heart and economy must influence student choice
Economy Watch by Neil Gibson, director of NI economic policy centre, Ulster University
This is one of the busiest times in the university calendar as students reflect on their A-level results and find out if they have been successful in attaining a place to study on the course they chose earlier in the year.
It is a critical point in their lives, influencing not just the next three or four years but also their future career. For some young people this is the culmination of a long held dream to study to be a doctor, an engineer, a social worker - something they have always known they want to do. For others their decision has been made more recently, shaped by experiences in school, by interactions with careers advisors and by reading and researching what courses universities offer.
The headline results for Northern Ireland made impressive reading - 29.5% of students achieved an A or A* grade and 98.2% achieved an A-E grade. This continues a long standing upward trend and maintains the region's position at the head of the UK league table for top-end school performance. As I, and others, have frequently discussed there are sadly major problems at the other end of the skills distribution but that is a story for another day - this is a time to celebrate success.
Given the importance of deciding what to study, a critical question to ask is 'are students making the correct decision?' In most cases the answer is yes, but sadly not always. As a lecturer I occasionally meet students who do not enjoy the subject they have spent four years studying and do not wish to pursue it further after they graduate. Worse still, occasionally students fail to graduate and face a challenging period refocusing and training in something different. How can we improve the decision making process? This is one of those 'team effort' situations. It is not solely the responsibility of the universities or careers advisors. Schools, parents and, critically, students themselves hold a big responsibly for making the correct choice - it is after all their future at stake.
As with all decisions it is best made on evidence and fortunately this is improving. However, there is also something else at play beyond hard numbers. There is a student's passion and desire. What gets them up in the morning, what subject have they loved, what career do they dream of having?
They may need to challenge their perception of a career and be sure it is exactly as they imagine it, and schools/careers help greatly with this by facilitating work experience and guest lecturers from employers. Students perform best at something they want to do, not something their friends or their parents want them to do but something they can see themselves doing in the future.
Research such as the Skills Barometer (https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/publications/ni-skills-barometer) produced by Gareth Hetherington and Mark Magill in the Ulster University economic policy centre can be hugely valuable in helping provide students with information on which courses are in strong demand by employers. The STEM subjects appear on this list very strongly as to does creative arts (so perhaps STEAM is a better acronym) and in this regard it was encouraging to see the uptick in mathematics as an A-level choice this year - 11% of students now choose it as an A-level. The barometer also warns of some areas, particularly in public sector occupations, where the supply is outstripping demand and consequently where the labour market will be tougher.
This is not to say students should make a decision solely on the employability prospects within their course but it is a critical piece of the information needed when making choices. As discussed in this column on previous occasions the job market is eclectic. Northern Ireland is enjoying job growth across a wide range of sectors suggesting a portfolio of skills will be needed to support growth. From agri-food to tourism, cyber security to analytics, engineering to sports science there is growth in many places which simply cannot continue without the steady supply of imaginative, enthusiastic and motivated graduates.
This time last year Brexit was barely discussed, now it could feature in a whole range of courses from macro-economics to global grade to political economy.
Sadly, we must end this article by turning to that ever present subject in economics - money. A sustainable funding model for the HE sector must be a priority going forward. Northern Ireland universities are under-funded and more and more students are being forced to look elsewhere for their university place. We are educating less than we could, or perhaps more relevantly than the economy will need, and if the funding shortfall continues the ability to compete with much better funded institutions elsewhere will diminish. That would be a shameful outcome - this is an area in which we have a world-class track record, from which employers need the outputs and which our talented students deserve. Ultimately the economy cannot grow without continued success in the university sector.
In next week's Economy Watch, we hear from Danske Bank chief executive Angela McGowan