How Much Do Job Prospects Matter When Choosing a University?

Image shows a view over the City of London, including the Gherkin.
Among the many different considerations to think about when trying to decide which university is right for you is the job prospects offered by each institution.

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One of the main reasons for going to university is, after all, to put yourself in line for a better job and make yourself more employable. Because of this, the job prospects offered by a particular university can become a source of huge concern to those trying to decide whether to apply or accept an offer. In this article, we look in more depth at employment prospects, what lies behind the statistics and how job prospects aren’t necessarily the be-all and end-all.

What do we mean by “job prospects”?

Image shows students talking to recruiters at a careers fair.
Does your university offer well-attended careers fairs?

It’s worth clarifying what this phrase means before we proceed with a discussion of whether or not they matter. We often see job prospects expressed as statistics on league tables, which we’ll come back to shortly. In real terms, though, there are a number of factors that might influence the job prospects offered from one university to the next, such as:

  • The reputation of the university – more prestigious university names arguably look better on your CV.
  • Effectiveness of the university’s careers service at offering useful, practical advice on which career is right for you, and how to pursue it.
  • The number of employers specifically targeting students of that university via its careers service, information evenings and so on – and the number of graduate-level employers in the area in which the student is studying, or in which they live with their parents after university.
  • The quality of graduates – has the academic rigour and social opportunities of a university or specific course adequately equipped the graduate for the world of work? Employers often know which universities produce the best graduates, and are likely to recruit a higher proportion of their employees from these universities.
  • The availability of industry placements during or after the course – undertaking such a placement could make you more valuable to employers even if the university is less highly ranked overall, because these placements give you more relevant knowledge and experience of the industry you hope to enter. The university’s network of contacts in local business may influence the ease with which you can secure this experience; many have ties with local employers and arrangements in place for internships and such like.

It’s easy to forget these factors when you look at plain old numbers on a league table – so if you are concerned about a university’s job prospects, it’s worth investigating these things further. Of course, the league tables in general should be viewed in the context of their shortfallings, which we’ll now move onto in more detail.

Can we rely on the League Tables?

Image shows rows of graduates.
A university with a lot of students going on to do further study may have unreliable graduate employment figures.

University league tables are notoriously difficult to rely on (see our previous article on these), and while there may be a vast difference between the highest-ranked and the lowest-ranked, the difference between similarly-ranked universities is often pretty negligible. The situation is no different for their reports on the “job prospects” offered by a university, and scores for employment prospects need to be seen in the context of the methodology used to obtain these figures and what data is left out of the calculations. For example, the Guardian University Guide records the “career score” as “the percentage of graduates who find graduate-level jobs, or are studying further, within six months of graduation”. This wouldn’t account for those who took longer than six months to find a graduate-level job, such as those who opted to go travelling after university (for instance). This also effectively records those who go on to further study as being employed; so a university that appears to have good career prospects could in fact simply have a large number of students going on to do masters degrees and PhDs, which is in no way the same thing as finding work. Indeed, many students may be doing masters degrees because they can’t find a job.
The Complete University Guide goes into more detail about its “Graduate Prospects” measure, revealing in the process that such statistics can’t be relied on as a concrete measure of employment prospects. It explains that the figure you see in the league tables is calculated based on ”the number of graduates who take up employment or further study divided by the total number of graduates with a known destination expressed as a percentage” (there’s that “further study” again); but adds that “only employment in an area that normally recruits graduates was included. The results were then adjusted to take account of the subject mix at the university.” It goes on to explain that “a relatively low score on this measure does not mean that many graduates were unemployed. It may be that some had low-level jobs such as shop assistants, which do not normally recruit graduates.”

Image shows the University of East Anglia, seen from a distance.
UEA has lower graduate job prospects than its ranking might suggest, perhaps because its specialism is in English and Creative Writing, which have worse job prospects than STEM specialisations.

Interestingly, it makes an additional point that some universities attract a larger proportion of students from their local area, and if that university happens to be located in an area in which there are generally fewer graduate jobs, this will have an impact on the figures for that area. So that doesn’t mean that the graduates are coming out of university with poor employment prospects because of the university itself; it could simply be that many of the students went to university in the area they grew up in and are staying there after they graduate, but it could be an area in which there are few graduate-level jobs, which wouldn’t show up in the statistics. What’s more, the statistics used to generate these league table scores, which come from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, use institution-level data to reflect a mix of subjects; so you don’t necessarily get the detail on employment prospects for a particular subject. Prospects may be higher or lower than the institution average for your own subject, which we’ll look at in more detail a little later.

A degree is a degree is a degree?

One school of thought says that it doesn’t matter what university you got your degree from – the point is that you went to university at all. The experience of being at university, whichever one you go to, theoretically helps you grow into a more mature person and equips you with the life and work skills you need to succeed in the workplace. This school of thought also tends to place more importance on work experience rather than what degree you have from where, and might point to the success some people enjoy without even having a degree, such as Richard Branson, who famously left school without any qualifications. These people show that having a degree isn’t necessarily vital for future success – and therefore if you do have one, it’s perhaps less important where it’s from.

Difference in quality of education

Image shows Jesus College, Cambridge.
The teaching methods at Oxford and Cambridge ensure that their students receive a high-quality education.

As we’ve explored in the aforementioned previous article, huge variation in teaching quality exists within the UK university system. This means that some universities undoubtedly offer a more rigorous education than others, producing graduates who are better able to adapt to life in a business, intelligently approach problems and cope with the demands of a big workload. For example, Oxford and Cambridge Universities are renowned for their much more intense style of education that relies on the one-to-one tutorial system. Students are expected to complete two essays a week, while students at many other leading universities might complete two a term. What’s more, each essay an Oxford or Cambridge student writes will be picked apart by a tutor on a one-to-one basis, and that student’s opinions will be challenged. It’s fair to say that this style of teaching results in graduates who are more intellectually confident, quick-thinking and able – making them more employable. The style of education and the teaching methods used at a particular university are therefore worth exploring in light of the fact that some may be offering you a more academically rigorous education than others, thereby increasing your employability. Don’t forget, when you’re applying for your first job, it’s fine to talk about your experiences of university to demonstrate your ability to cope with the demands of a big workload, tight deadlines and so forth. Some universities will give you more experience of this than others, honing your ‘transferrable skills’ to a greater degree.

Some universities are better respected than others

This discrepancy in educational standards and academic rigour means that some universities are simply more highly regarded than others, and therefore offer better job prospects – particularly if, all other things being equal, an employer has to choose between two applicants, one of whom went to a top university and one who went to a lower-ranked one. It goes without saying that Oxford and Cambridge Universities are incredibly well-respected, but they’re not the only ones. The Russell Group universities are held in high esteem as being centres of teaching and research excellence, and they all have strong links to business. In the Russell Group’s own words:
“Graduates of Russell Group universities are of the highest calibre, providing businesses of all sizes and sectors with the talented recruits they will need to meet the challenges of today and in the future. Our universities’ careers services offer employers the opportunity to advertise jobs to current students and recent graduates.”
Some go as far as to say “go to a top university or don’t go at all”. While this statement is a little extreme and ignores the social benefits of going to university, it’s not difficult to understand this viewpoint in light of the variation in teaching quality and reputation among UK universities.

Subject choice matters, too

So far, we’ve been looking at job prospects at a university-level, a perspective that neglects to mention the fact that some subjects offer better job prospects than others. What’s more, because teaching is done by subject departments rather than centrally, there’s a great deal of variation within each university. That means that job prospects for certain subjects within a particular university may be higher than for others, and that’s why you see subject-specific league tables as well as those at institution-level. You therefore need to look closely at the job prospects offered by your particular subject at each university, rather than the overall university-wide score, as they could be fine for yours while the overall score is brought down by prospects for a different subject. Subject-specific job prospects are also able to take into account the fact that some industries have skills shortages, such as engineering and biotechnology, which will push employment prospects up for those subjects.

Are other factors more important than job prospects?

Image shows the beach at Aberystwyth.
The landscape around Aberystwyth may draw prospective students.

When you start thinking about why you’re going to university, job prospects can sometimes seem the most important factor when choosing where to go. After all, the whole point of going to university in the first place is to get a better job, right? While that’s true, it’s not the only important consideration. So what other factors are there?

  • The course – its content, compulsory and optional modules, department size and facilities, methods of teaching and assessment and other opportunities, such as work placements as part of the course.
  • League table ranking – bearing in mind the aforementioned shortfallings of these.
  • Reputation – for example, is the university part of the Russell Group?
  • Location – distance from home, city size, university city or not, cost of living, atmosphere, what’s there (such as nightlife, the sea, attractive architecture and so on)
  • Staff/student ratio – how much time will be devoted to you?
  • Accommodation – how many years of your course can you get accommodation? What’s it like and where is it in relation to the university buildings?
  • Structure and age – new, old, collegiate, campus?
  • University size – small and close-knit, big and anonymous?
  • Facilities – both social and for your subject.

Your own aims, situation and preferences will have a significant bearing on which of these factors is most important to you, but this list goes to show that job prospects should be viewed alongside a range of other considerations, not in isolation.

Help! My university has poorer job prospects

Image shows astrobiologists in a NASA lab.
Work experience can make all the difference to your job applications.

Finally, if you are planning on going to a university that supposedly has worse career prospects, perhaps because you’ve prioritised some of these other factors in making your decision, what can you do? By far and away the best thing you can do in this situation is to gain as much work experience as you can. This real-life experience will teach you valuable skills for the workplace, and that’s something that can’t really be taught by going to university. As the saying goes, “there’s no substitute for experience” – and that’s particularly true when it comes to securing a job. Work experience from a respected employer, in a field that’s relevant to the path you want your career to take, will go a long way towards countering any negative effects caused by a university with a poorer reputation, and it may even put you at an advantage over someone with a degree from a more prestigious university.

Image credits: banner; careers fair; graduates; UEA; Cambridge; Aberystwyth; scientists.