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Why are some degrees more valuable than others?

By Rebecca Orr

Monday 12 February 2018 Student Journalists

In August 2017, Nick Timothy, formerly the Joint Downing Street Chief of Staff, published an article in the Daily Telegraph under the title ‘Higher education has become unsustainable and young people know it. Radical change is the only solution.’ According to Timothy, successive governments have created an ‘unsustainable and ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme’ as students choose the wrong institutions and courses, and are left with crippling debts in non-graduate jobs.


At a national level, Timothy says there has been no improvement in Britain’s economic productivity as the number of graduates has increased, in spite of governments predicting that this would not be the case. The ‘radical change’ that Timothy calls for is the introduction of sub-degree technical qualifications and high-quality places of technical education, as well as the further restriction of those who are allowed to study for a degree.

There is almost too much to unpick in Timothy’s article, but one issue that stands out to me as worthy of exploration is his take on degree subjects.  The idea that some degrees are more worthwhile than others is touched on straight away. ‘A recent visit to the barber, my hair was cut by a young man who told me he had graduated from Southampton Solent University with a degree in football studies. He was friendly, articulate and skilled in his profession, but I doubted whether he thought his qualification was worth the debt he will carry as a millstone around his neck for 30 years.

 Timothy’s comment is predicated on a number of assumptions. Namely that being a barber is not a worthwhile job, that the man will reluctantly stay in the role for the next thirty years, that the student studied football studies with the sole purpose of landing a high-paying job after graduating, and that all students from the course are in the same position.  Further to this, Timothy’s article is an example of a wider phenomenon in which vocational and arts degrees are shot down by commentators as “mickey-mouse” qualifications. We increasingly see people write or speak in a lazy short-hand in which everything from golf course management to English Literature is dismissed as pointless.

Writing in the Times Higher Education supplement, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for External Relations at Southampton Solent University put up a fine defence of the graduate and the course. But maybe next time, Timothy should ask the student himself ‘whether he thought his qualification was worth it’. He might be quite surprised by the answer…