Go Higher: Are you on course for a top job?

Vocation, vocation, vocation - that's the golden rule of the modern university courses that are turning tradition on its head.
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The expansion in higher education means that many more graduates are chasing many of the same jobs. This September's intake will see around 420,000 new students at Britain's universities and colleges. Unless graduates have particularly vocational degrees or work their socks off to get firsts, the first rung on the employment ladder can be a struggle. The days when young men and women received their degree and walked in to a job are well and truly over.

The expansion of the numbers entering higher education has caused a cultural shift within universities and colleges. To meet the rising numbers and the variety of applicants, new courses are being created every year, showing that the traditional form of higher education is disappearing. No longer is university life reflected by a handful of students discussing the finer points of Marxist philosophy, Shakespeare's imagery or pure maths. These days more and more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds are taking specifically vocational degrees to give themselves a chance in the labour market.

The A-level results published in August proved this. The bastions of academia - English, French, and history - are losing out. Ten per cent fewer students have taken French A-level this year, while English and history are down by four and five per cent respectively, compared with 1998. Applications to computing, in contrast, soared by 17 per cent.

There is a large range of teacher training and education-related courses. Many of these courses are offered by the "new" universities, such as the University of Central Lancashire and Leeds Metropolitan, and higher education colleges such as University College Northampton and Roehampton Institute, London. Higher education is no longer the preserve of the red-brick, traditional universities.

In the uncertain world of graduate employment, courses that promise increased chances of employment are gaining popularity once more. Engineering graduates, for example, are in particular demand.

A major survey, Working Out?, carried out by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and the Institute for Employment Research discovered that 76.2 per cent of those who read engineering and technology found themselves in full-time employment related to their degree within 18 months. This is a higher percentage than for any other subject.

Computing, one of the country's fastest growing industries, has seen applications rocket. Despite a traditional perception of computing as a dull, back-room industry, populated by nerds, applications are up in some universities by 20 per cent this year. At the University of East London, computing is part of the business school.

"Computing is an applied area," says Dr Quentin Charatan, senior lecturer in computing and business information systems. "It is very much a vocational area. Careers people from here go on to manage the technology in business as well as, or rather than, producing it themselves."

This cross-referencing of degree disciplines is giving prospective students far more choice in how they learn and how they can progress in to the job market. It is recognised that the British are lazy linguists, and getting worse all the time. However, with the spread of the global economy, those with knowledge of at least one foreign language will be in an ideal position to capitalise.

In recognition of this, universities and colleges are providing language education in flexible forms that make it accessible for more and more people. Greenwich University runs the "University-wide Languages Programme" which gives all students, regardless of their formal degree, the chance to learn a language from scratch or as a follow-up to previous learning.

At Huddersfield University, the trend is generally away from single honours degrees across the board. It offers joint degrees of a language with diverse fields such as music, marketing or media studies.

Malcolm Pollard, head of languages, saus that courses are being revised to develop the vocational skills needed by students today. "Contracts worth millions are being lost all the time because of our lack of language skills. This is the message I try to get across to people whether they are taking a language degree or a language option within another degree programme."

The pressure that prospective students feel to make career choices now, before they have even applied to university or college, and to succeed academically, is growing all the time.

But it is vitally important to recognise that choices do not necessarily have to be made now. Unless you are planning on becoming a doctor or a scientist, in which case the right A-levels and degree choices are vital, you can choose the degree which matches your interests, rather than fledgling career ambitions. What is not commonly known is that a degree in any subject will make you eligible for 40 per cent of graduate jobs.

Employers are looking for people who can communicate, work in a team, and take responsibility. So why not try classical civilisation at Newcastle, digital media at Dartington College of Arts, or mechatronics at Manchester Metropolitan? Do what you want to do.