Every June, we see doe-eyed graduates bounce through the town, their academic gowns flowing behind them as they take their first steps into life after university. They might even pose for a photo on the pier, the vast, undulating sea before them at once reminding them of the promise of the future, as well the unnerving uncertainty of it. This brings us to a question which will become important to us all one day: once the gowns and diplomas find their resting place gathering dust in parents’ attics across the world, what really does happen to St Andrews graduates?
At first, the statistics seem reassuring enough. For instance, a 2011 Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) survey states that 92.4% of St Andrews’ Class of 2009/2010 went on to further education or employment. We even (narrowly) outdid rival universities such as Durham and Oxford, the English institutions seeing 91.2% and 90.2% of their leavers gaining jobs or study placements respectively. From this, it would seem that only a relatively small proportion of St Andrews students encounter the graduate unemployment crisis that preoccupies the media.
On closer inspection, the picture does not seem quite as optimistic as these figures might suggest. The figures from HESA simply refer to the number of graduates in work- not specifically in ‘graduate level’ jobs. Ultimately, the numbers just tell us that post graduation, 92.4% of St Andrews students went on to potentially anything, from stacking shelves in their local Tesco to lucrative PR work.
HESA’s own figures concerning UK Social Anthropology graduates in 2009 give us an insight into the real employment situation – 20% of those in employment got their first work in fields like waitressing or retail. In contrast, only 8% went on to jobs in ‘marketing, sales or the advertising sector’, according to our Careers Centre. Such statistics could seriously alter how potential students and their parents regard higher education – while it seems to almost guarantee some sort of employment, it does not necessarily lead to a high profile job straight away. Graduate prospects suddenly do not seem as universally rosy as they do at first glance.
However, these facts can still seem quite impersonal and irrelevant, especially when they deal with the whole of Britain, not solely St Andrews. In reality, many recent graduates take on non-graduate roles immediately after they finish education. This way, they gain some financial stability, something hard to come by in a fickle and competitive job market. Peter Menzel is one such ex St Andrean-“I’m working in the Day Visitor Catering Department at Whipsnade Zoo. No fixed hours, just whatever is available at a little more than minimum wage.” People also use this time to really think about their next career move; Peter’s plans for the future include perhaps “going to South Korea to teach English for a year from August, but the more I think about it, the less appealing it is. Other possibilities are teacher training or a non-graduate job, but I really don’t know right now.” So, eight months on from graduation, the future can still be uncertain for a St Andrews graduate.
Peter is not alone in considering teaching English – it is actually another popular occupation amongst ex undergraduates. A quick sift through our university’s Careers Wiki reveals that St Andrews students from History to Modern Languages go on to this occupation.
It is an attractive option to many young people; companies from across the world are eager to recruit English speakers fresh out of university as teachers. Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Iberia is one such organisation, recently sending out a press release that highlights that ‘UK graduate unemployment is reportedly as high as 20% so selling your language could be the key to a brighter future.’ Spain is apparently very different from our shores, thanks to ‘the low level of English proficiency and government subsidies, the English teaching industry continues to thrive and attract native English speakers for work.’ Such promise of ready work in an ailing economy would be hard for any graduate to ignore. This is something TEFL Iberia taps in to very explicitly – ‘If students are worried about their prospects after graduation, have sent out endless CVs with no response or don’t want to enter the rat race, studying TEFL could be an ideal solution.’
It seems wise to encourage any current students entertaining the idea of TEFL to do their research first, however. While there are many reputable institutions out there, there are websites set up by ex-teachers warning against poor staff treatment in schools across the globe (see http://teflblacklist.blogspot.com, for example). Despite being a slightly riskier option than the traditional graduate job, TEFL still gives students the opportunity to see the world and earn a good salary as they do it.
Teaching of another variety is also a sought-after career for those leaving St Andrews. For whatever reason, be it the summer holidays or a wholesome desire to shape the minds of the young, our graduates are training to be high school teachers. For a couple of case studies, you only have to look over the page to read about Kate and Mike, two 2011 graduates now studying teaching at Oxford and working in an independent school respectively.
Further education in general is actually something many graduates opt for. Of St Andrews’ 2010 Class, 325 went on to further study, and 65 went on to a combination of work and study (HESA). Like teaching English, here we have a life choice that will shield us temporarily from the harsh realities of working life. Though scholarships are available, they are, rather predictably, very hard to obtain. Nevertheless, taking a postgraduate degree allows many to put off paying off their student loan for a year or two more as they simultaneously earn credentials that could one day benefit them in a job market saturated with undergraduate degrees.
Don’t let this doom and gloom about the economic climate affect you too much, though. St Andrews students stand as much chance of finding success as, if not more, than other UK students. Promotional material for our University highlights that ‘research has shown that St Andrews has a greater proportion of graduates working for FTSE Top-100 companies than any other university relative to size’. So, students may feel claustrophobic in this little town, but they can rest easy knowing they are unlikely to be a small fish in big (job market-shaped) pond one day. We may question the value of our degree sometimes, but it does not seem like the outside world does.
Despite all this, leaving St Andrews with a degree can seem like an optimistic fantasy, especially when you feel overwhelmed by work. If you are in this position, you can take comfort in the fact that St Andrews boasts a miniscule drop out rate of ‘just over 1%… lowest in Scotland and lowest in the UK behind only Oxford and Cambridge’. In all likelihood, you will be one of the 99% that make it to the end of their degree here. Even if this is not the case, their are a myriad of other options available to you. Why not transfer to another university that suits your personality better? Or undertake an apprenticeship? Speaking of apprentices, those who are cutting their time at St Andrews short can always be reassured by watching the BBC’s Apprentice; millionaire boss Alan Sugar never got a degree, instead working ‘from the bottom up’. Now he has graduates clambering over each other to be employed in his business empire on national television.
On a similar note, one cannot underestimate the importance of hard work in order to achieve any success. Perhaps it is a little short-sighted to place the worth of a St Andrews degree on what is achieved immediately after graduation, though. Although statistics give us an idea of the current employment situation, they ignore that building a (both financially and spiritually) rewarding career can take years of effort, even after university finishes. Some of our most famous alumni include First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond and our current rector and writer Alistair Moffat, both of whom had to work hard for years after their degrees here to achieve the success they enjoy today.
We would do well to remember that a degree is not a career ‘quick fix’, but also acknowledge that figures show having one means we are likely to have a safety net of some sort of employment.
During our university careers, we fret and fuss over assignments, but we seem to forget that our greatest masterpiece may be our life in the decades after we leave.