Students and buyers remorse – the case for liberal arts degrees

By Vikki Alderson-Smart, Head of Professional Guidance

A recent survey of university students conducted by the website The Student Room found that nearly a fifth regret their choice of degree, with even more saying that they would have chosen differently had they been given a second chance.

These findings are far from unique. In 2016, a survey of A level students conducted by Which? found that around three in ten wish they had chosen different A level subjects. Only half felt sufficiently informed about how their A levels might affect their choice of university or choice of course, and three in ten said that advice they were given when choosing their A levels failed to take into account how their subject options might affect their degree and university choices.

As a teacher with a specialist professional guidance role, these new findings grab my attention – not least as many of those students expressing disappointment cite a lack of initial research as the main cause. Careers advice in schools has long been criticised as patchy – not least by Ofsted, who in 2013 reported that only one in five schools were effective in ensuring that all students were receiving the level of information they needed. On the surface of it, then, it sounds like this may be a fairly straightforward failing on the part of school careers guidance practitioners and the schools that employ them. However, it would be wise for us to pause before pulling the trigger.

I am fortunate to be part of the Bedales Professional Guidance Department which provides a highly-structured Higher Education (HE) pathway for sixth form students. However, making good choices also requires an investment on the part of the student. To this end, we encourage them to make use of a wide range or resources when selecting courses. University taster days, where a student can experience a day in the life in a wide range of subjects can help when deciding between courses. Futurelearn is an excellent source for students to access free online courses as another way of trying out various subjects. Our 6.1’s (lower sixth) participate in the Centigrade programme which aims to match a student’s interests with HE courses, hopefully opening their eyes to options not previously thought about. Bedales also subscribes to Unifrog – a wonderful resource that is a comparison website for university courses. It collates available data – subject requirements, typical grade offers, league table and student satisfaction scores, tuition and teaching provision, and much more. No less usefully, it allows students to calibrate their progress against what is available to them, and so make realistic choices.

Does this guarantee that our students make decisions that are right for them? Well, for those who are clear about their direction and highly motivated it is a great help, but for others the picture can be less straightforward. In my experience, about 70% of any lower sixth year group at the start of the spring term, will know broadly what they want to do, with about 20% of the cohort very clear about subjects and institutions, and how they plan to realise their goals. The remaining students tend to be pretty vague in comparison – their direction might extend towards doing one of the humanities, but with little preference as to where. Around 5-10% of the cohort will have no clear idea.

It is tempting to assume that students will make best use of what we make available to them. However, whilst at key points some want a great deal of my time, others actively avoid 1-to-1 guidance sessions with me and give resources a wide berth.

We must be wary, then, in assuming that students’ A level and university choices directly reflect the quality of careers and HE guidance available to them. And even when this is the case, things don’t always go to plan. For example, it is difficult to foresee that continuing a subject in which they had done well at GCSE may prove to be too much of a stretch for some, or that non-educational factors may change the picture for them. Working with such uncertainties is one of the ways in which we careers guidance specialists must earn our corn.

There are various approaches we can take to helping the undecided to ensure that they make sound choices for A level and university destinations. For example, we might steer them towards facilitating A level subjects which have admissions currency across a range of courses. More specifically, we may encourage those who are less than firm in their university preferences to consider applying after they have received their A level results. This removes at least some of the uncertainty from the process for them, and buys them more time to research.

For those who are struggling to identify a specialism, we might make a point of highlighting the availability of liberal arts degrees which, initially at least, see students pursue a wider range of subject options thus allowing extra time to settle on their passion. Such programmes are well established in the US, Canada and Europe, and an interesting new development has been the rising enthusiasm in UK universities for this approach.

Sound advice from school careers staff is very important, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether we might be better advised to structure HE in a way that doesn’t require all young people to settle on a specialism quite so early.