Many of my contemporaries have kids trying to decide which subjects to take at GCSE and A level and, for the older ones, which degree or even postgraduate course to take.

What often comes out loud and clear is how out of date we old timers (who did our exams and degrees in the dark ages of the 1980s) are, and how badly placed we are in advising them. There are subjects that didn’t exist back then and a technological and skill revolution that has transformed study and work (imagine! Doing a degree without the internet or a PC!). And the entire economy, work and landscape has also changed.

I had a look at the latest data for higher education entry, to see which were the most popular course that undergraduates went into last year and then contrasted that a recent report that took on board the effect of automation and the rise of AI to predict the skills needed in the future workplace.

In terms of what undergraduates chose to study, the most popular courses were business and administrative studies (14%), followed by biological sciences (11%), subjects allied to medicine (11%), social studies (10%) and creative arts and design (9%). These accounted for over half (54%) of the subjects studied by new undergraduates.


But are undergraduates studying the right subjects and getting skills for the future? Is there any alignment between the subjects they have chosen and the occupations and sectors that are likely to grow and have jobs and opportunities for them?

We’ve heard a lot about artificial intelligence, automation and the increase in robots taking over jobs – a PWC Report last year predicted that almost 10 million UK jobs were at risk of being replaced by a machine – though this has mainly resulted in being told there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area.

Although robots are often used for low skill activities, increased automation will affect many sectors and this includes those that traditionally have been graduate destinations including finance, insurance and administration. The U.S. Consultancy McKinsey has estimated that a fifth of a lawyer’s job could be automated and already, legal technology exists that can take a brief and make changes to it to make it more authoritative. Food for thought for the 67,000 undergraduate law entrants.

A recently published report from Pearson and NESTA The Future of Skills (Employment in 2030) looks at how changes in globalisation, an ageing society, the growth in the green economy and the increase in automation will affect the economy and the labour market.

Echoing other trends analysis, it predicts that some UK jobs will disappear, new ones will appear, and the labour market and employers need a new combination of skills. Looking at this report alongside the university intake statistics makes for interesting reading and reflection on what young people choose to study.

It seems like it is good news for those 160,000 students opting for ‘subjects allied to medicine’ (nursing, physiotherapy, nutrition, healthcare administration, etc) as well as more traditional medicine and dentistry (c50,000) as a key growth area identified is healthcare (reflecting our ageing population). And for those who may mock new-fangled degrees in Golf Management or Sport and Exercise studies, sport and fitness is another sector predicted to grow (less threatened by automation and reflecting consumer trends for fitness and wellness). Education is also predicted to increase (attributed to an increase in lifelong learning) – though only 3.5% of new undergraduates opt for an education degree at this point.  Other sectors that are predicted to grow include therapy and counselling, psychology, sociology, social perceptiveness, learning strategies, service orientation, customer and personal service. Many social science undergraduates appear to be in the right area.

Good news too for the 145,000 creative arts and design students as creative, digital and design are predicted to do well in future.  So too are engineering occupations (currently studied by 7% of university entrants). These are both areas where digital technologies are identified as having a huge impact and some of the new occupations identified need many of the skills traditionally associated with creative jobs.

It’s always impossible to describe new jobs from a distance as they don’t exist yet but it is possible to predict the skills that they are likely to need. The report predicts that the future economy needs individuals who have strong interpersonal skills, as well as ‘higher-order cognitive skills’ such as originality, fluency of ideas, active learning, good judgement and decision making and systems analysis and evaluation. Broad-based knowledge areas (for instance, English language, history, philosophy and administration and management) are all associated strongly with occupations predicted to increase.

Perhaps what is important when young people are making their choices is that they look beyond the subject area to the skills that they will acquire when studying it. We can’t predict the jobs that will be available but having the right skill set seems key. Asking questions about how they will be taught and assessed and the skills they are learning during their course might be as important as what and where they study in future.