When Andrew Gardner graduated from the University of Salford with a 2:1 in sports and leisure management, he remembers being asked why he had just spent three years getting a “degree in push-ups”. Two decades later, he runs his own recruitment consultancy and takes home a six-figure salary. “I must admit, my ‘mickey mouse degree’ allowed me to buy a house in Spain,” he says. “When I sit on my roof terrace with a glass of wine, I smile to myself.”
Rishi Sunak has launched a crackdown on so-called useless degrees; university courses which do not offer students value for money, a route into work or a decent wage. Fees for degrees with foundation years are to be reduced, graduate salaries will be taken into account when judging course quality and courses where high proportions of graduates do not go into work will see student numbers capped.
From comics and e-sports to performing arts and media studies, there is a wide variety of courses being offered by British universities which do not seemingly offer a straightforward route into employment. Yet many have taken umbrage at the British Prime Minister’s rhetoric, arguing that a degree is about more than just what you learn in lectures and seminars — and that where you go and what you study does not define your future.
Data compiled by The Telegraph shows a wide gulf in postgraduation earnings between students studying the same course at different universities. The UK Department for Education data from 2020-21 shows that creative arts students from Bournemouth University took home an average £31,000 five years after graduating, £19,700 more than at Wirral Metropolitan College. At Loughborough, graduates who did media studies had average salaries of £38,300 five years on, compared to £16,100 at the University of Hull. In combined and general studies, Bath graduates picked up £35,100 more (£44,200) than their counterparts at Swansea (£9,100).
Jack Taylor-Stocks, 27, is one Bournemouth alumnus who smarts at the suggestion his degree in game design was pointless, since he broke into the highly competitive video game industry after graduating in 2021. “I never intended to go to uni, so I just picked a creative course which sounded fun,” he recalls. “You’d hear people on nights out scoff a bit at the course title. I think a lot of it was because they thought I was just playing video games, whereas making them is totally different. I now work as a game designer and without that course I wouldn’t know how to even do a fraction of what I do now. It helped me learn the lingo and software while building my network.”
For many, what is most memorable about university is the friendships, experiences and extracurricular activities — not what is learnt or which institution is attended. Adam Collins, a 54-year-old career coach and former advertising director at Nike and Saatchi & Saatchi, holds that this is also the main way in which going to university improves one’s career prospects.
“Education is massively important because university is as much a social experience as an academic one,” he argues. “People from every possible type of background can become successful and where you go for your degree and what you study is no different.”
“Any degree shows a possible employer you have the ability to learn, develop and stick at something,” adds Gardner, 48, who founded Peak Talent Limited after 12 years as a senior executive at recruitment firm Reed. “I’m not going to say my degree did everything for me but it got me on the ladder.”
This is the element of the university experience which also resonates with Katrina Fox, who is 49 years old and the founder and director of international branding consultancy Peters-Fox. She graduated from Staffordshire University with a 2:1 in radio, film and TV studies in 1995 and admits to getting a “bee in my bonnet” whenever disparaging comments are made about degrees such as hers.
She says: “I got a 2:1 and was the first girl in my family to go to university. Coming from an Irish Catholic background and a working-class family in Leeds, the first time I met someone from a family [where the parents were] divorced was at university and the first time I met someone who went to boarding school was there too. It really opened my eyes to a wider social demographic across the country to where I was originally from.
“Now I run my own business, I don’t feel I’ve missed out by not doing a business degree. In fact, I think it has helped me because I probably think about fixing problems in business in a different way to someone who has been taught how to solve a problem. Don’t think that the decision you make about university is the decision that you have to base your career on for the rest of your life. It is going to change so cut yourself some slack, be open-minded, learn from others and do what you want to do.”