Joan Smith: They're not called soft subjects for nothing

Higher tuition fees and rising graduate unemployment will bring a welcome reassessment of the purpose of universities
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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair's government announced 10 years ago that it wanted to see 50 per cent of young people going to university, there were sharp intakes of breath. It was a bold but controversial attempt to increase social mobility, and I certainly didn't imagine they would all sign up for a degree in pure maths or Classics. Not every school-leaver is academically inclined and there was inevitably going to be a growth in non-traditional subjects, prompting endless jokes about improbable courses in Madonna studies or equine tourism.

Satire aside, anxiety about degree courses in media studies and photography isn't just evidence of snobbery. For a long time, critics have argued that these would lead to a two-tier system: kids from affluent backgrounds would opt for A-levels and degrees in academic disciplines, while students from poorer families would make do with less challenging "soft" or vocational subjects. Now we know for certain that it's happening, with the Russell Group – Oxford, Cambridge and 18 other leading universities – acknowledging last week that they prefer students who have taken traditional A-levels.

A new guide compiled by the Russell Group suggests that school-leavers need to have studied at least two A-level subjects from a list of maths, English, geography, history, pure sciences and a classical or modern language; if you don't, the handbook says bluntly, "many degrees at competitive universities will not be open to you". The guide describes many popular subjects as "soft" and "vocational", and advises students to think carefully about their motives for avoiding traditional A-levels. "Are you trying to avoid a challenge?" it asks, in what will be music to the ears of Labour's critics. These include the Association of Graduate Recruiters, which said a year ago that Blair's target had lowered academic standards and led to a boom in unchallenging courses.

I don't agree with the association's argument that universities should be allowed to charge unlimited fees by 2020, or indeed with the Government's plan to allow top universities to charge up to £9,000 a year. But there is a problem, not just with the funding of higher education in this country but with the philosophy underlying it. Encouraging growth in "soft" subjects is linked to the notion that education is basically about preparing young people for work, an idea that isn't necessarily compatible with preparing them for life – or as citizens of a modern democracy.

On top of that, evidence is emerging that Labour didn't even manage to achieve its narrow objective of creating a new cohort of graduates who would be seamlessly absorbed into the employment market. According to Universities UK, there were big increases last year in the popularity of courses such as design studies, cinematics and photography, and hospitality, leisure, tourism and transport. Nursing and social work are also becoming more popular. But while unemployment among nursing graduates remained at below 2 per cent in 2008-2009, it increased alarmingly in other subjects over the same period. More than 13 per cent of design studies graduates were jobless six months after leaving college, while one in five software engineers couldn't find work after the same period. Unemployment among history, music and drama graduates was lower, while newly graduated dentists barely featured in the unemployment statistics.

Since those figures were published, the economic situation has got a great deal worse. Graduate unemployment reached 20 per cent in the third quarter of 2010, according to figures published last month, making joblessness among this group around two-and-a-half times higher than the national level. But the pain isn't spread equally among graduates in different subjects.

Furthermore, with tuition fees set to rise sharply, school-leavers are likely to think hard about whether it's sensible to incur substantial debts if they're then going to emerge from college with a "soft" degree that's oversubscribed in terms of job opportunities.

This may lead to a long-overdue re-evaluation of the Blair government's education policies, and in particular the proliferation of vocational courses. A report for Universities UK argues that traditional or non-vocational subjects don't limit the range of job opportunities (insofar as they exist) for graduates, with approximately half of all graduate-entry jobs open to graduates of any discipline; employers value the discipline of a degree as much as specific skills or knowledge, the report says.

The Russell Group's handbook makes a similar point about university admissions, pointing out that a law A-level isn't essential for a student contemplating a law degree, while some universities believe English is more important than history at A-level as preparation for a history degree.

At the same time, it isn't clear that the target of sending half the nation's school-leavers to university is either affordable or desirable. It isn't elitist to suggest that some young people would be better off doing apprenticeships, especially if the alternative is a university course in a technical subject such as information systems where there is already high graduate unemployment. The coalition government has pledged to increase government funding for apprenticeships from the £398m a year it inherited from Labour to £648m by the year 2014-15. Yet the figure remains tiny in relation to a higher education budget of £7.1bn.

A decade on from Labour's ambitious pledge to open up universities, new graduates are struggling to find jobs in subjects they've been studying for three or four years. Some may wish they'd found a job or an apprenticeship on leaving school, avoiding debts which will have to be paid off when the job market improves. Others may be discovering a hard lesson about the purpose of education: learning to think critically is a better foundation for life than a course in running tourist attractions.