Design most popular university choice – but graduates aren’t ending up as designers

New research has found that while 30,000 students graduated from design courses between 2012-2013 and 2015-2016, only a quarter ended up going into “highly skilled” design jobs.

Design is the most popular subject for university students to take as a first degree – but only a quarter of graduates are likely to end up working as a specialist designer.

The research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) looks at how likely students taking certain subjects at university are to end up in related, highly skilled and well-paid jobs.

Data was taken from over 600,000 recent graduates in the UK, and looked at all university subjects that had more than 25 graduates between 2012-2013, and 2015-2016.

30,000 students took design – but 25% became designers

The research found that roughly 30,000 students graduated from design courses as their first degree between 2012-2013 and 2015-2016, but only a quarter of them ended up in the top three jobs associated with design.

More students took design as their first degree than any other subject group, beating teacher training, nursing, medicine, dentistry and architecture – but all of these degrees were far more likely to lead to a job in these fields.

Less “highly-skilled” than journalism but more than art

Additionally, those studying design were less likely to go into any kind of “highly skilled” job after graduating, whether related to design or not, compared to architecture, marketing, journalism and law.

However, studying design was found to be more likely to lead to a “highly skilled” job than physics, biology, psychology, French, maths, business studies and art.

Jobs that are categorised as having “high skill levels” by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) include corporate managers and directors; science, research, engineering and technology professionals; health professionals; teaching and education professionals; and business, media and public service professionals.

Expected graduate salary £19,400

Additionally, the expected salary of a design graduate six months after graduating was relatively low at £19,400, below that of architecture, journalism, law, maths, French, business studies and politics. The highest was dentistry at £31,800 while the lowest was art at £18,500.

But the research did find that less vocational subjects open graduates up to a broader range of job options, while more vocational subjects restrict graduates’ options early in their career.

Vocational level of job was calculated using OSCR

The results were calculated by giving each subject an occupation-subject concentration ratio (OSCR) – a percentage indicating how “vocational” the subject is, so how likely the students are to go into a career related to their degree.

This was calculated by looking at how many graduates go on to be employed in one of the three most common highly skilled occupations associated with the subject they took at university. Data was only used based on students’ first degrees, so not postgraduate degrees and not second undergraduate degrees.

Medicine and dentistry most vocational

This measure gave an OSCR scale of 0-100%, with a score of 10% being not vocational at all and a score of 90% being very vocational.

Design studies had an OSCR rating of 26%, meaning just over a quarter of students are likely to go into a highly-skilled, related career, while medicine and dentistry had a rating of 99%, meaning nearly all graduates are likely to go into a related career.

To see the research on measuring the vocational levels of different degrees, head to the Higher Education Funding Council for England site.

Hide Comments (7)Show Comments (7)
  • Carl St. James February 16, 2018 at 8:44 am

    Given the lack of raw data one could assume only 25% of graduates gained a 1st and were actually talented enough to get a high-paying job. If 50% of Design graduates gained a 2:2 this would probably put them at the bottom of the list when employers are hiring internal designers forcing them to go freelance to prove themselves.

    • J February 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm

      That’s nonsense (and rather insulting to the many students who don’t get a first for reasons unrelated to ‘talent’), as is the inference drawn from the article. Many history graduates don’t go on to become historians, few archaeology graduates become archaeologists, and I doubt many French graduates turn French. A degree isn’t a license to practice, it’s a license to learn, and a good design degree should open up opportunities, not narrow them.
      More design graduates in non design jobs may be a good thing.

    • Andrew Scott February 19, 2018 at 8:52 am

      Need to re-read the article – it’s not referring to the degree classification, but the level of degree (i.e. Bachelors rather than Masters).

  • Michael Darby February 18, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    I have always maintained that degree level design is – or more to the point, should be – an amazing subject to study and practise analytical thought and expression.

    However, the evidence suggests very strongly that “teaching” focuses on software skills – at the expense of analysis and expression.

    Furthermore, there are too many courses that seduce would be designers with curricula that suggest that these fledglings will end up working in design (and in some cases even capable of running their own practices from graduation onwards. This, combined with deteriorating standards of teaching and student contact is a wicked con.

    The fact is that there are insufficient jobs available in the world of design – here or overseas – and colleges really ought to come clean about that. Worse still, there are many examples of poor (or even little) proper teaching. The nett result is that quantity (of student places and degree courses) is detrimentally affecting the quality.

    Sadly, many university places (note, not “uni”) are primarily about income for the colleges and not about the development of the individual; this is compounded further by ludicrous staff:student ratios.

    Successive governments have created this university sausage machine to massage and disguise unemployment statistics, in reality they are only deferring them.

  • Steve Pritchard February 26, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    Having been lucky to have trained and studied a degree in Industrial Design in the late 80’s, when being a designer was the equivalent of being a premier league footballer, We were lucky in the knowledge that all our lecturers both fulltime and visiting, were of an extremely high quality and able to pass on their knowledge and skills to equally eager students.They were also actively running outside consultancies or working for big corporations, so still in the ‘real world’. It was also a darn sight harder to get onto the courses. It wasn’t the sausage machine mentality, bums on seats scenario we have now. I have encountered many graduates over the years and you can see a sad decline in all round skills, sketching, thinking through ideas etc… Some of the students who have left with firsts wouldn’t have got a 2.2 10 – 15 years ago!
    From my experience in later life and having a 30 year design career both in product design and now retail, the training and life skills gained in design has helped tremendously. Design/creative thinking can be transferred to any vocation. Creative thinkers are as far as i’m concerned an important necessity in an ever changing and demanding world.

    • Michael Darby March 1, 2018 at 11:55 am

      I completely agree on all your points Steve. Two caveats: colleges shouldn’t delude students into thinking they’re going to walk in to a job in a diminishing market and standards should be far higher all round. I’m totally with you that a properly taught design degree can be transferred to any vocation.

      • Steve Pritchard March 6, 2018 at 5:25 pm

        Thankyou Michael.
        The job market is getting tougher each year but then it probably always has been? If you are good then you will eventually get that dream job.
        I have seen so many graduates of late, where Lecturers have , excuse the comment ” blown smoke up their ass” for 3 years that they come out under experienced and over confident ! Like you say expecting to walk into a 30k job.
        In reality a huge wake up call.
        Universities seriously need to wake up and start taking the better students, forget bums on seats and be honest at the outset with the less capable ones.

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