More shocking ‘research’ on ‘pointless’ university degrees

There’s a narrative that university is all a bit expensive and a bit pointless.  It’s not a new narrative, but it’s been wound through this summer’s fun and games about fees, long holidays, shorter degrees, fat cats etc.  I noted last year that the More Means Worse narrative – for that’s what it is – had jumped into the summer, a period that had previously left for stories about glamorous twins getting identical A level grades and going off to university.   I’ve also noted that companies like to generate news stories with spurious surveys and research about university life.

So, here’s an outfit that has manage to combine these two trends – a mysterious survey that shows that university is a bit pointless, and maybe you’d be better off doing something like an apprenticeship. An outfit that’s an apprenticeship provider, no less.


News items appeared on 5 September 2017 reporting a survey done by Qube Learning . This was covered in both the Sun and the Mirror and a few other outlets.  They picked up on the same details, details that were covered in a ‘News Post’ that Qube put on their website on 13 September 2017.  Now, I understand how embargos work – but why delay putting up the press release that you’ve clearly sent to the press a week earlier?  The only reason I can think of is it does give the ‘journalists’ some cover as they effectively copy out the press release.

As an example, the opening paragraph of the Qube press-release says:

A survey we conducted found the most common reasons to rue time spent in further education are paying too much for their degree, wasting their time and making bad choices such as not choosing subject or institution more carefully.

And the Mirror’s second paragraph says:

A survey found the most common reasons to rue time spent in further education are paying too much for their degree, wasting their time and making bad choices such as not choosing subject or institution more carefully.

The Sun’s second paragraph took a similar line:

A survey found the most common reasons to rue time spent in further education are paying too much for their degree, wasting their time and making bad choices such as not choosing subject or institution more carefully.

Of course, as this is a piece of research, you’d not expect journalists to muck about with the findings of this survey, but to report it honestly.  But both websites repeat each key point, with a very mild amount of paraphrasing (hardly enough to escape Turnitin).

There are scant details about the survey in the press release, it says its was of 2000 graduates, but we don’t know anything about the sample, response rate or methodology.  The results always described in the text as a number agreeing with a statement ‘93%’, ‘nearly half’, ‘more than four in five’, ‘nearly two-thirds’ etc.  The press release is heading towards a list (always the favourite way of getting news space) of pointless degrees:


1. Acting
2. Outdoor adventure and environment
3. Office skills
4. Film studies
5. Dance / choreography
6. Drama studies
7. Celtic and Anglo Saxon Studies
8. Fashion merchandising
9. Media studies
10. Religious Studies

*Source: One Poll Survey

We’re told that the study found this list of degrees were those thought of as a ‘waste of time’ and that ‘two thirds of respondents who graduated with qualifications considered ‘pointless’ admitted their degree didn’t help them to secure their current job’ which is hardly surprising.  These are interesting categories of degrees for those surveyed to have chosen.  Did they chose the from a list, or did they write them in?  Who does a degree in ‘office skills’?  Do people understand the difference between ‘acting’ (normally associated with a conservatoire-based professional course) and drama studies?  I imagine that most Outdoor adventure and environment and Fashion merchandising courses are highly vocational, and that Celtic and Anglo Saxon Studies isn’t.

Sadly, Qube Learning haven’t published their report [UPDATE: Qube have told me: ‘unfortunately, we cannot release the report as it’s paid for content and the property of Qube Learning’ – see below].  Assuming it does actually exist, we can’t interrogate its findings.  But those findings are now out there, read by readers of the Sun and Mirror websites, and now referred to in other media as if it’s a real report with validated findings.  Qube have helpfully tweeted those occasions – so we know it’s been quoted on the One Show on BBC1.    This is highly disappointing; I’m happy for anyone to do ‘research’ and publicise their findings, but they should publish properly.

This matters.  The demographic of people reading the Sun and the Mirror and watching the One Show will include communities under-represented in higher education.  Being told that a quarter of graduates regret going to university may affect their life choices.  I’m very happy that people should take informed decisions – I agree with Joe Crossely of Qube who says in the press release:

‘It’s imperative that people from as young as 16 years old should be made aware of the educational choices that are out there for them’

What I don’t agree with is that in order to stress the value of apprenticeships, you need to put out press releases about ‘pointless’ degrees.  There have been issues with apprenticeships, I expect that apprenticeship providers would be furious with any university marketing departments that put out press releases on the back of opaque surveys saying that there were ‘pointless’ apprenticeships.  Make people aware of choices, but don’t pander to the More Means Worse argument to do so.


I’ve been in correspondence with Qube Learning and OnePoll (the organisation that did the survey).  They won’t release the report but have given some sense of the methodology – 2000 responses were gained from a survey pool and were given multiple choice responses to questions such as ‘do you ever regret going to university?’.  The list of pointless degrees list was generated by the respondents going through a list of titles and saying whether they were useful or useless (but not, I think, pointless – which is a different thing).

OnePoll’s web page explains how they run these ‘PR surveys’ – all properly done according to MRS code of conduct – to help create stories to support brands.  I’m perfectly happy that the media will lap up stories as to how many smoothies students consume – but this piece has both public policy outcomes and potential outcomes on peoples’ life choices.  So  I disagree with Qube – I think they should publish their report so it can be engaged with.


The Galactic University Rankings

I’m not a fan of rankings.  I’ve been grumpy about them since 1993, but I recognise that, in the UK, in order to have a trade paper, and a pretty good one, they need to earn a buck. They’ve had their big launch this week and all very well choreographed it was too (spoilt only by the Independent whose basic journalistic competence is so badly compromised they can’t understand the concept of an embargo any more).

I’m enjoying the big glossy booklet with the rankings in it – but perhaps not for the reasons intended.  In 2017 it is now officially twice as big as the magazine (154 pages vs 72 pages).  There’s lots of lovely content in the rankings guide, I’m sure, but I’ve been captivated by the advertising.  I’ve always wondered about the very general advertising that some universities place in THE; it’s often positioning statements, rather than actually advertising courses or jobs.  I wonder if they think that the people who fill in the reputation surveys will remember Manipal University next time, or that we’ll be beating a path to East China Normal University next time we want a partner in Shanghai.

I first spotted the galactic theme.  There are several universities who’ve put their messaging against a star-filled sky.  The imagery is obvious, CUHK sum it up nicely – ‘Reach for the Stars – a galaxy of leading scholars and educators – soar with us’ We might be a global university (CUHK is 58th this year) but go beyond this to the stars.

FullSizeRender (24)

But, even dull sublunary types, you start reading the slogans.  There have been some great pieces done with slogans – for example Liz Morrish on the Russell Group or the American version. I can’t offer poetry, just replication.  These are all in large font size in the advertising featured in the THE World University Rankings Booklet

Asian insight. Global outlook.
A World-class university in an incredible city
Asia’s Global University
A different gaze
The Chinese University for Global Leadership
The World needs New
Not just another university
From here, you could go anywhere
Challenging convention, saying ahead of the curve
Seeking Truth and Pursuing Innovation
Transforming Lives
Passionately inspiring the minds of tomorrow
Learn today Lead Tomorrow
Knowledge Pioneers at the heart of Europe
The University for a Changing World
Your Global Future Starts Here
Thinking works
Make a world of difference in a world of differences
Start Here. Go Anywhere
A university for the real world
Where innovation is a mantra and collaboration, an art
Progress doesn’t accept answers. It questions them.
Critical Edge
Never Stop Advancing
We think in terms of possibilities instead of limitations
Gold Award for Outstanding Teaching

Note that the English university who’ve gone with their TEF award rather than something inspirational come towards the end of the booklet.  Although it’s easy to scoff, actually the litany of aspirations does capture something of the extraordinary nature of our universities.  Under attack all summer, maybe we should be proud of what we do, not just focused on two universities, but how the thousand universities that Phil Baty has plonked in his ranking do so much, and how the thousands of universities beyond the glossy booklet do so much too.