The average graduate owes £13,000 at present. But as tuition fees rise to £3,000 a year, most students entering university in 2006 are expected to emerge with debts of between £20,000 and £25,000. A well-paid career at the end of their studies becomes a vital consideration. So how likely are those taking various subjects to land a graduate-level job and how much do graduates in different disciplines earn?
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) for 2003 offer an insight into their prospects. This organisation compiles data on the percentage of graduates working in jobs that normally recruit graduates six months after they have left university.
Courses aimed at specific professions, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, naturally have the highest proportions in work.
Elsewhere there can be large variations. Despite its popularity among students, communication and media studies proves to have one of the poorest employment records. More than half of graduates are in non-graduate jobs or unemployed six months after leaving university, demonstrating that the message about this medium is still not getting through. Just a third of graduates go straight into graduate careers.
Similarly, half of graduates in hospitality, leisure and tourism are either working in non-graduate jobs or unemployed six months after completing their courses. Psychology, another boom subject, also fares poorly: just 27 per cent of graduates are entering graduate employment from university. Applications for building rose by 30 per cent this year and the employment figures help to explain why. Nearly three quarters enter graduate jobs. Food science also has a good record.
Schools and universities have long expressed concern about declining levels of interest in sciences and modern languages. But HesaÃ†s employment figures bear out the pragmatic attitude of students, worried about the cost of their degrees. A third of physics and astronomy graduates were in non-graduate jobs or unemployed, as were 37 per cent of those in biological sciences and a quarter of those with chemistry degrees.
Linguists struggle similarly. A third of graduates in Russian, German and French were either in non-graduate jobs or unemployed, as were 43 per cent of those with degrees in Italian or Iberian languages.
Universities generally struggle to recruit enough students for engineering courses. Electrical engineering has the highest unemployment rate at 14 per cent, marginally more than art and design and computer science.
This sits oddly with the salary premium that employers apparently place on graduate engineers. Average starting salaries for general, mechanical, aeronautical and electrical engineers are more than £18,000, putting them among the top earners six months out of university.
Nursing, another fast-growing subject as demand from the NHS increases, is sixth in the list of top-paying graduate jobs, with new entrants earning nearly £19,500. Doctors take the top prize, however, with an average starting salary of almost £31,500. By contrast, those holding media studies or psychology degrees earn about £14,000, and those in hospitality and tourism get about £14,500.
Archaeology is a true labour of love, because starting salaries are the lowest of all subjects at about £3,300. Prospects are poor, too: 11 per cent of graduates are unemployed and 30 per cent are in non-graduate jobs.
Languages command different market values in line with the availability of supply. Graduates in Russian or Middle Eastern studies can expect about £16,500, compared with £15,000 for French or Spanish and just over £14,000 for Italian.
High starting salaries do not necessarily translate into good long-term rewards, as many nurses will tell you. The reverse is also true: pay levels for newly qualified architects, for instance, are almost 20 per cent lower than those in building or social work.
Graduate unemployment remains low overall and virtually non-existent if you have a good class of degree. Many take low-level positions initially as a means of getting a foot in the door of their chosen careers, and move quickly over time into posts more suited to their qualifications.
Controversy still rages in academia about the long-term value of a degree in an era when half of all young people are expected to have one. The Government justified its decision to raise tuition fees by pointing to the salary premium enjoyed by graduates. It argued that the huge expansion of higher education over the past 15 years had produced no evidence of an erosion in the value of graduates to employers, and that more jobs in the future would require a degree. But some recent studies claim to have detected the first signs of a ´graduate glut` leading to concern that a degree may be about to decline in value just as it becomes more expensive to acquire one.
Times Online 23rd May 2005