Why do people go to university?

One theory as to why over-education can be bad for you is that people form expectations of life after study that are not subsequently met. But this assumes that people do in fact expect higher education to pay off in the labour market. We can investigate this by looking at surveys on reasons for wanting to go to university.

In 1994, a survey of year 10 to 12 school children planning to go to university found, in a open-ended question, that 86% gave answers relating to their career prospects. Some gave answers consistent with careers not being paramount (‘to be better educated’, 15%; ‘interesting courses’, 3%), but as they could give multiple responses some may also have had vocational rationales for study.

A 1997 ABS survey of people actually enrolled in higher education found that 96% gave a vocational reason. Broken down by field of study, the proportions ranged from 90% in ‘society and culture’ (an annoying ABS category that includes the humanities, social sciences, fine arts and, for some unknown reason, law) to 100% in architecture and education.

A 1999 survey of first-year students, which asked about how important various reasons for enrolling were, found the following ‘important’ ratings: ‘studying in a field that really interests me’, 96%; ‘to improve my job prospects’, 86%; ‘developing talents and creative abilities’, 73%; ‘to get training for a specific job’, 74%; ‘expectations of my parents and family’, 23%; ‘few other opportunities because of the poor job market’, 18%; ‘being with my friends’, 14%.

In 2005, the ABS Education and Training Experience Survey found that 75% gave as their ‘main’ reason for their current study something related to work, and 19% nominated ‘interest or personal reasons’.

Multiple motivations make it hard to draw definite conclusions. The two ABS surveys seem furthest apart, but perhaps can be reconciled if the 1997 survey was looking only for any reason, while the 2005 survey was looking for the ‘main’ reason. Asking only about the current course the person is enrolled in may also create ambiguous responses for my purposes; somebody currently doing a course just for interest may already have or plan to acquire a university credential to improve their job prospects.

Putting the 2005 survey to one side, it would seem that between 86% and 96% of people have at least some vocational aspiration connected to their higher education. As around 20% of people don’t seem to be in a job that requires a degree, and others will be in jobs that do generally require degrees but not necessarily in the field the graduate hoped for, there is clearly some level of mismatch between aspirations and reality. This contributes to the discontent documented in yesterday’s post.

41 thoughts on “Why do people go to university?

  1. Are the two mutually exclusive? My study has been in areas that interest me. It has also helped with my career. it seems to me that at least some people (and I would hope that it is many people) will want to work in an area that interests them!!!

    Like

  2. Damien – Indeed, the evidence suggests that people take courses to match their interests and/or aptitudes rather than to maximise income. What I am trying to find are the people who go to university *purely* out of interest and therefore may not be disappointed not to use their qualifications. The evidence suggests that these people are a small minority, and the rest would all other things being equal prefer to use their qualifications.

    Like

  3. Andrew, I like your example that 100% of architects studied architecture for vocational reasons. In this boom and bust city architects are either in great demand (now) or looking for work (previously, and in the future). How do you think universities should respond?

    Like

  4. But even if I went to University *purely* out of interest, say I did something just to develop my mind, if I ended up in a job that didn’t allow me to continue to expand my mind and education and use the skills and knowledge I learnt at Uni in my life afterwards, then I would be just as unhappy as someone who went to Uni for career reasons solely and is not getting to use their qualifications in their job.

    You may have a point, but none of the data you’ve presented so far seems able to resolve whether the reasons why people go to Uni has any relationship as to why they are unhappy about not using their qualifications in their job.

    Someone may have to go and do some research on it, as trying to infer the answer from the available data seems pretty pointless to me

    Like

  5. Russell – Within their supply constraints they should react to demand from students they think suitably qualified, which is probably somewhat sensitive to current and forecast conditions – though not entirely given the strong role of interests and the likely confidence of some applicants that they will secure a job. Architecture is a transferrable skill, so they can work elsewhere in Australia (there seem to be plenty of people from the West over here in the East) or overseas if Perth goes bust again.

    Like

  6. How could you pull together a university architecture department for a few years (big demand) then disband it in the bust, then recreate it for the next boom … doesn’t sound practicable.

    Some people can move to jobs, many can’t because of committments.

    Like

  7. Russell – You wouldn’t create and disband departments. Demand is very unlikely to drop to non-viable levels, and universities have flexiblity in the number of teaching staff. In any case, higher education has a history of being counter-cyclical, with demand going up when there are no jobs.

    Like

  8. Fair enough – but architecture seems like a good example of why surveys will turn up people not working in their area of study – the boom and bust of market economies. How much can you blame university planning for this?

    Like

  9. Law, architecture and psychology are all vocational degrees with unemployment queues at the end of the degree for many. If universities were privately funded and relied on donations from former students and industry, then the number of funded places would more closely match demand.

    Fortunately their degrees have given graduates skills that are transferable, particularly law.

    A price mechanism for degrees is a great information source for potential students.

    Like

  10. I like this architecture example more and more … same is true of town planning, geology, drafting – lots of occupations that are subject to the boom and bust, creative destruction and churning of the capitalist economy.

    That’s probably why those miserable souls are in the purgatory of Andrew’s Table 4 – what capitalism gaveth, capitalism took away. They’ll have to stay in Table 4 ’till the next boom, and compete with the new graduates. Maybe Table 4 is a sign we need a more stable, centrally planned economy.

    Like

  11. I teach geo-something, and our student demand follows boom/bust curve very strictly (and all the demand has been met so far, so no issues of student places have arisen yet). In good years we may get 20 students, in bad years in could be just 3. How do we survive in bad years? We smooth it out by doing externally funded research. The latter is also affected by the cycle, but to a lesser extent.

    Like

  12. All very well Boris, but where are the external funders for the arts and humanities research? Or is it government funding? Government funded research sounds like a good way to even out the demand cycle – sort of work for the dole for academics – I like it.

    Like

  13. Russell, to be honest, a significant part of our “external” funding comes from the government as well. It’s not a dole, in a sence that it is quite competitive and we have to work on it regardless whether we are in a boom or bust. Other parts come from industry. I don’t see why this couldn’t be the same in the arts and humanities. They also do have industry – entertainment industry, newspapers, publishing industry, you name it. Even banks can be interested in sociology. Of course in order get funding they need to show relevance.

    Like

  14. Actually Brendan — I’ve seen the stats for psychology graduates from a few universities, and they arn’t nearly as bad as you think — they were surprisingly reasonable in fact, which leads me to believe that trying to find even semi-literate 21 years olds isn’t the easiest thing on Earth (blame the high school system). You can combine that with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow now too for those that get qualified and onto the government jackpot. The problem for most psychology departments now is not so much teaching too few students, its the ability to do higher level training, which has basically been killed by recent governement reforms, so presumably in a few years you won’t be able to become a psychologist even if you want to and have the aptitude.

    Like

  15. conrad, I do not know the statistics but I know one smart girl who completed BSc in psychology and went almost straight to a nursing course. Asked wy she answered that this is a real profession, whereas psychology is interesting but the chances of getting anywhere with it are very small unless you are within top 10% or so.

    Like

  16. So far as I am aware, psychology is the first profession for which initial entry requires a Masters degree. I don’t know the history of this, but you could see why people look to other options, which might be the point.

    Like

  17. No, only an undergraduate course is required for medicine, the MBBS as it is known (MB=Medicinae Baccalaureus, BS = Bachelor of Surgery).

    Like

  18. I agree psychology is hard to get into — but the graduates seem to get picked up by employers for one thing or another (my guess is being semi-literate and I think employers like their quantative skills to — funnily enough one of the things that is getting cut from the courses, because students don’t like it and complain they have to do it) — showing that whilst it might not be easy to become a psychologist, it is not such a bad degree to have (I’m sure Russell will be happy). When I saw the stats, they were only a few thousand dollars down on the average. Thats from a mid-level and a crappy university. Floating aroud the web

    http://www.csu.edu.au/study/oncampus/gss.html

    there are the Charles Sturt figures (and thats an aweful university), althought they don’t have unemploymate rates.

    Like

  19. You can get graduate employment and salary data here. For those who do not go on to do the Masters degree in psychology, I suspect employers see psychology graduates as numerate Arts graduates.

    Like

  20. I think Brendan was being ironic (?). This did used to cause consternation between myself and the first Mrs D (MBBCH). I would tell her that ‘real’ doctors had PhDs. She would say that real ‘doctors’ had real jobs.

    Like

  21. Thanks Andrew — from a quick look, at least to me there is a suprising amount of homogenaity amongst the different groups which confirms my memory — at least compared to people’s opinions.
    Actually the really interesting ones are the more pure mathematical sciences. These seem to be toward the bottom of the ladder (especially Physics) despite the constant claims you here about Australia becoming an innumerate country. Evidentally, people are very numerate (although perhaps its just an accident) — numerate enough that they know those are not good professions to be in as a graduate. Perhaps the government should shut up in future about the declining numbers of these people.

    Like

  22. Such things do exist. All sorts of excitment can happen in the medical fraternity. So many surgeons insist on being called Mister, and in some cases having a Masters degree really indicates that the person failed their registrar exams. All good fun.

    Like

  23. Generally no. A lot of courses are moving towards graduate study whereby students do a generalist degree first and then do the medical degree proper – but that’s not a PhD. Some law degrees work like that as well.

    Like

  24. Doctors really have to bachelors degrees, as Andrew indicated. But some get extra qualifications. One here has so many letters after his name they barely fit on one line.

    Like

  25. Sacha,

    According to one of my youngish doctor friends and not objected to by her youngish doctor friends, it is really hard to become a specialist doctor now without a PhD — there is of course huge competition at that level because it adds huge bucks to your salary, and this is looked on very favorably. However, to complicate things, lots of the medical PhDs don’t look like those in other areas of science and can seemingly be done a lot faster. I’m not an expert, but they appear more on the level of a clinical doctorate, but that might be just because the people getting them have different expectations to other areas of science.

    Like

  26. Sacha that is news. I’m quite surprised. Historically medical types tended to specialise through the various colleges and not through the unis (that was seen as a sub-optimal route).

    Like

  27. It’s news to me as well – and if true a very unwelcome development, adding to the time and cost of acquiring specialist qualifications.

    Like

  28. Andrew,

    I think the time and cost is less than what is the current scenario now. If you speak to some of the young doctors, then getting a PhD appears to becoming the default case due to the scarcity of specialist training and the way candidates are selected (or perhaps I just have ambitious friends). Combining the two makes sense because it reduces time if you assume a different default. I think this is just the continuation of the devaluation of degrees where you now need further degrees to get to the same place. The same is true in psychology, where once you only needed an honors degre, but now need a Masters now, with I think now a further trend moving towards clinical doctorates. Academic stuff is the same — once a PhD was fine, then you needed some papers, now you need some good papers.

    Like

  29. Conrad – Though if this is like the typical Australian PhD, it would not give the breadth required for specialist clinical practice, just very detailed knowledge of one particular sub-speciality. From Sacha’s link it seems more closely linked to training a medical research workforce.

    Like

  30. “Though if this is like the typical Australian PhD, it would not give the breadth required for specialist clinical practice, just very detailed knowledge of one particular sub-speciality.”

    At best.

    Like

  31. Andrew and Boris — You can correct me on this one, but I think what you are talking about is what most medical PhDs are already like with or without being done together (I’m sure there are exceptions) — thats why I said initially that medical PhDs often look like clinical doctorates to non-medical people, not, say, the type of PhD that you might get in other areas of science. Thus the important distinction is not so much what they look like, but whether they differ from PhDs done separately. My bet is the distribution is almost identical, excluding a few outliers.
    In case you are not aware of what is acceptable for a clincical doctorate, it is possible to (a) basically run a big project for someone else; and (b) look at the outcomes. There doesn’t need to be huge brain-power involved in some areas, although often they are somewhat technical (e.g., put DNA sample into machine to be examined/ask statistician how to analyze data). Sometimes you don’t even need to collect the data. You also don’t need the type of in-depth analysis that one might expect from a PhD in some areas, they can be shorter (thank god), and at good universities the expectation I assume used to be far less.
    Its worthwhile noting that this sort of system is potentially usable everywhere that has PhD by publications now. I doubt it would be very hard, for instance, to publish a couple of average papers on topics like health comes in patients of type X or exposed to treatment Y. Some of these might not require any brain-power at all, just a bit of stats that you could potentially pay other people to do if you are part of a big team. Futhermore no-one is going to reject a PhD where a few papers got published, and it probably wouldn’t even be possible in some places where the criterion are written in stone (e.g., 3 papers equals accepted).

    Like

  32. Andrew, at the risk of being slightly off topic (although somewhat related to your comment number 35 on this thread), what are your views on the Australian versus US structure for PhD degrees. I don’t know if this is true of other disciplines, but my impression for economics is that the US PhD is vastly superior to the Australian PhD. the reason for this is that it requires students to complete extensive coursework and pass a variety of comprehensive exams before they proceed to the dissertation. This provides them with a solid foundation of knowledge upon which to base their research.

    Disclosure: I am in the process of completing a PhD degree in Economics through the University of Texas at Austin.

    Like

  33. Damien – I agree entirely, though how a PhD should be done can legitimately vary between disciplines. In economics there is relatively low priority given to publishing books, so why get students to effectively write one (also one that has almost no chance of being published, making it worse)? I think coursework would also help deal with the fact that PhDs are as much as a psychological as an intellectual challenge: coursework gives some feedback and a common experience with other students, which would help deal with the uncertainly PhD students face about the worth of what they are doing and the isolation they often feel.

    Like

  34. I agee with Damien but not with Andrew. Though coursework in US PhDs makes them is superior to Australian ones, this is usually not so much at the expense of the research or thesis component, at least in the sciences. In good US universities it takes about 6 years to complete a PhD, so there is time to do coursework AND write a decent thesis (often stronger than in Australia).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s