A dual degree means double your chances in a tough jobs market

Why offer students just one subject when studying two can give help kick-start their careers. Richard Garner finds out how Keele's founding principles are coming into their own

Many in the education world believe the sixth form is too early for a pupil to narrow their subject options down and specialise. Instead of the three-subject option – which could be just three sciences or three humanities – they prefer the world of the International Baccalaureate, where students study in seven subject areas as they prepare to get the qualifications they need to progress to university.

Similarly, there are those now, too, who feel that it is not necessary to cut your subject options down to one at degree level either.

Enter Keele University, which made great play in its mission statement when it was founded in 1949 that it would offer dual degrees as an option for its students and has kept faith with that pledge ever since. Today it benefits students such as Kimmy Colombo, 20, who is studying media communications, culture and music – and who hankers after a career in the media as an option that could be open to her.

"It is quite challenging when it comes to exams," she says. "In my case you have to make the transition from one subject to another. Initially, I really wanted to go into acting and I auditioned for drama school, but didn't get in. Doing music keeps that creative option open."

Ruth Ann Harris, 19, also studies an interesting mix of subjects – bio-chemistry linked with marketing. "I was mainly interested in science and economics," she says. "I wanted to be able to go between the two when I was looking for jobs. Marketing is more creative and I enjoy doing that." At Keele, students can not only opt for a dual-honours degree – they can also elect to study and research "add-ons" while they are doing their courses.

Bolu Oyewale, 21, is opting to study a Japanese and Russian module alongside his main degree course. "I just wanted to do something completely different," he says. "I'd never studied either of them before." The university believes its innovative approach to degrees – other universities in the UK do offer dual degree courses but none have made it quite such an article of faith as Keele – will give its students an edge when it comes to the employment market.

In the university rankings for 2011, it came third in the country for the percentage of graduates obtaining full-time employment with 12 months of leaving university. Its figure was 93.8 per cent. The day of the dual-honours degree may have come again, it appears, as uncertainties dominate the jobs market.

Marilyn Andrews, the university's pro-vice chancellor for education and student experience, says: "We were offering a radical departure in 1949 and they [the university's founders] were really interested in a new type of education. We didn't want to offer study in just one subject area and we've stuck with that ever since."

It is an approach that is mirrored in many universities in the United States and on the Continent where the idea of the single-subject degree which could bind a student to just one area of expertise is not so appealing.

At Keele today, the students are split into three broad areas of study – health, natural sciences and the humanities and social science. Over the university's 10,000 students as a whole about 50 per cent of them are engaged in dual studies.

Health, though, is largely made up of those opting for a particular professional route and is therefore made up of students opting for a single area of study. In the natural sciences and humanities and social sciences, therefore, about 70 per cent of the students are on dual courses.

"It is still a very popular option," says Ms Andrews. "Students do still like to come and choose two subjects to study. The majority of them will stick with their dual honours. We're not unique in this but we're one of the few that make it our flagship. We're fairly confident, too, that most universities don't insist that their students do a research subject as well. That's part of our offering."

What the Keele system does, she says, is allow the student to build up an impressive array of skills for their CVs. It is promoting what it calls "the distinctive Keele curriculum" and the university says: "Keele was founded on the principle that a different kind of university education was needed – one which produced distinctive graduates who were able to balance essential specialist and expert knowledge with a broad outlook and independent approach. Keele remains committed to these founding principles."

Academics insist that their students keep track of the extracurricular activities they have taken part in so they can present a potential employer with a more rounded indication of their character. They have devised a checklist of the 10 Keele graduate aptitudes that can help paint the true picture of a student's abilities – including their communication skills.

All students are encouraged to write their own portfolio, listing not just what subject knowledge they have acquired studying for their course but also how they have been able to develop their character during their three-year stint at the university.

Hopefully, as a result of this, they will be able to produce alumni in the future whose careers are as successful as some of their dual-honours graduates in the past. These include Michael Mansfield, the radical lawyer who studied history and philosophy while at Keele, and BBC File On Four reporter Gerry Northam who studied philosophy and physics.

He says of his time at Keele: "I knew that the dual-honours system would suit my desire to avoid specialisation and to study both humanities and science... It gave me the best possible start for a life of inquiry and investigation in a wide variety of fields."

Would-be applicants to Keele are given a preparation for the lifestyle on the campus and their degree courses through an e-mentoring programme which links current undergraduates with school pupils in years 10 to 12 (up to AS levels) as well as those who have already applied to Keele.

In all, 89 undergraduates have volunteered to become student mentors so that new recruits do not feel isolated when they arrive at the university for the first time.

With an ever-changing jobs market that can see old employment opportunities disappear and new ones suddenly open up, staff at Keele University argue that the rounded academic and personal experience they offer will stand its graduates in good stead in an all too unpredictable future.

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