Should students specialise early or late?

The National Bureau of Economic Research has recently released an interesting paper on early subject specialisation at university (similar looking ungated papers here).

Author Ofer Malamud takes advantage of differences between English and Scottish higher education to examine an interesting natural experiment in early versus late specialisation. In England, students generally choose a specialised field of study on admission to university. In Scotland, however, they choose a specialisation after two years of more general subject choice. However, graduates of both university systems enter a common UK employment market.

Malamud finds that Scottish graduates are more likely to work in occupations related to their course specialisation than English graduates. He theorises that the Scots use their early years to discover their talents and interests, and therefore make better choices of specialisation. The English, by contrast, may complete the specialisation they started, but because some chose the wrong field they are more likey to look for work in other areas.

Though the findings are interesting, I don’t think there are any major public policy implications. The differences are fairly modest; depending on how broadly ’switching’ from field of study to type of occupation is defined we are talking about 5 to 7% of the sample. And where there are clear and major occupations at the end of a degree, with the partial exceptions of architecture for English graduates and education for Sottish graduates the vast majority end up in the ‘right’ occupation (and still majorities in the two exceptions).

An important difference between English and Scottish higher education is that Scottish degrees are typically one year longer (though this is linked to the shorter length of their school education). On these figures, it would not be efficient to make everyone do an additional year of higher education to get a 5-7 percentage point increase in course-career matching.

What it really points to, in my view, is the desirability of diversity in the higher education system. For students uncertain about what career interests them most, courses that delay specialisation would be worth considering. But for students already confident that they know which career they want, early specialisations should be available. On the figures in this study, most of the early specialisers are right. Many of those who are wrong will discover this in first year and can switch to another more suitable course, creating a one year delay for them, but not imposing this on others.

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