Future High-Value Degrees

This is an article adapted from an essay I wrote for the RES competition, answering the question ‘Which university degrees do you think will be considered “high value” in 5-10 years’ time, and why?’.

Education is the foundation of society, the accelerant of growth and the key to development. In the UK, higher education enrolment is rising – participation in higher education jumped from 19.3% in 1990 to 33% in 2000[1] and 50% in 2019[2], and these figures are anticipated to continue increasing. However, as more people take up university degrees, the inherent value of a degree comes into question. In this essay, I will dissect what defines the value of a degree. Using this definition, I will determine the three main categories of ‘high value’ degrees in the next 5-10 years – technology, caregiving, and sustainability.

When considering whether a degree is ‘high value’, it is essential to consider its value to the individual and the economy[3]. Therefore, although income may still have an influence, a ‘high value’ degree does not directly translate into a high-paying degree – we will explore this concept in the caregiving section. This definition of a degree’s value means that education is a positive externality, where the external benefit is the value to the economy. A ‘high value’ degree would incur a greater external and thus social benefit and therefore create a greater welfare gain than a ‘normal’ degree (as illustrated below in Fig.1). When considering education from this perspective, a degree can be considered ‘high value’ if it maximises this social benefit and welfare gain.

Firstly, technological degrees will be critical in stimulating innovation to solve many of humanity’s key issues. One example is agriculture – widespread innovation is required to meet our food needs. The global population is currently reaching 8 billion; in 8 years, or by 2030, it is predicted to reach 8.6 billion[4]. Meanwhile, the land available for agricultural use is decreasing, so technological advancements are necessary to scale production to ensure food security. In addition, technology degrees such as Computer Science and AI/Mechanical Engineering are pivotal in developing AI and automation for certain sectors, improving efficiency and reducing errors in these jobs. This has significant benefits for economic growth – AI, robotics and other forms of intelligent automation may contribute up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030[5]. Although this will replace the workers in the affected industries[6], increasing uptake of technology-related degrees may potentially create more jobs[7] in the long run. This is due to Acemoglu’s skill-biased technological change[8], which suggests that improvements in production technology increase the relative productivity of skilled labour and thus their relative demand. Resultantly, technology-based degrees can be considered ‘high value’ due to the need for innovation in solving current global crises, implementing automation to improve efficiency, and creating more jobs for the future.

Another field of higher education that will be considered ‘high value’ is caregiving – this includes degrees such as Nursing and Clinical Psychology that lead to care-intensive professions. With an ageing population, care workers are becoming more necessary[9], yet the NHS is severely understaffed – in 2021/22 Q3 alone, the NHS was short just under 40,000 nurses. 10.3% of nursing positions go unfilled[10], perhaps due to insufficient pay for the mental stress and pressure of the job or any other drawbacks which would lower the private benefit. In addition, there is an escalating mental health crisis, especially among younger generations. 17.4% of children aged 6-16 had a probable mental disorder in 2021, up from 11.6% in 2017 – for 17 to 19-year-olds, this figure rose from 10.1% to 17.4% in the same period[11]. Although COVID has yet again exacerbated the issue, there are underlying problems with increasing academic expectations, social isolation, long-term stress and numerous other factors damaging young people’s mental health. As a result, therapists and social workers will also be in high demand[12] and vital to ensure that future generations can manage and maintain their mental health, allowing them to be more productive within the economy in the future. Overall, it is clear that care-intensive professions and related degrees will be crucial in maintaining public health, maximising productivity and supporting the economy. Therefore, although the private benefit may be lower, there is a much more significant external benefit which still creates a substantial social benefit, hence categorising them as ‘high value’.

Finally, sustainability-oriented qualifications will be essential – these can include Environmental Science, Conservation or Sustainability, as well as any other degree that can prepare students for a career in protecting and conserving environments on local, national and international scales. The world is on the verge of an environmental crisis, with average global temperatures predicted to rise by 1.1 to 5.4°C by 2100[13]. Sea levels are also expected to rise – the magnitude of this increase depends on our future emissions, as seen in Fig.2[14] below. Depending on humanity’s course of action, we could reduce the potential rise by up to 3m, but we will need educated individuals specialised in conservation and sustainability to achieve this. Without their input, many coastal towns and cities will disappear, erasing thousands of homes and displacing millions of people. In addition, sea-level rise could potentially cost the world $14 trillion annually by 2100[15]. However, sea-level rise is only one example of the problem faced by the global ecosystem – many more issues remain undiscovered and unresolved. Clearly, the benefit of these degrees to the economy is enormous, and their uptake is necessary for our global future. Thus, this higher education sector can also be considered ‘high value’.

As we have observed, on both a national and global scale, we will face a multitude of problems in various factors, including economic, social and environmental – this means that degrees incorporating technology, caregiving and sustainability will be essential in resolving these issues. From creating new jobs to protecting our global ecosystem and maintaining public health, these three higher education sectors are ‘high value’ due to their vast social benefit, being crucial in supporting and sustaining all aspects of the economy. Therefore, by prioritising and encouraging enrolment in these types of courses, we are securing a more developed, healthier and sustainable future for both our generation and those that follow.

[1] National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (Dearing Report) (1997) – Report 6 Widening participation in higher education for students from lower socio-economic groups and students with disabilities. Table 1.1

[2] Department for Education (2019) – Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/843542/Publication_HEIPR1718.pdf

[3] Department for Education (2019) – Education Secretary calls for an end to low value degrees. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/education-secretary-calls-for-an-end-to-low-value-degrees

[4] United Nations (2017). World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/desa/world-population-projected-reach-98-billion-2050-and-112-billion-2100

[5] PwC (2020). How will automation impact jobs? Available at: https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/economics/insights/the-impact-of-automation-on-jobs.html

[6] O’Connor, S. (2016). Intelligent robots raise anxieties over future jobs. Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/6b15a864-a25c-11e5-8d70-42b68cfae6e4

[7] Faroohar, R. (2017). The silver thread of technology that runs through future jobs.  Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/4aa1f5e4-05a5-11e7-ace0-1ce02ef0def9

[8] Acemoglu, D. (2002). Technical Change, Inequality, and the Labor Market. Journal of Economic Literature, 40(1), pp.7–72. doi:10.1257/0022051026976.

[9] O’Connor, S. (2017) Never mind the robots; future jobs demand human skills. Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/b893396c-3964-11e7-ac89-b01cc67cfeec 

[10] Campbell, D. (2022). Staffing crisis deepens in NHS England with 110,000 posts unfilled. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/mar/03/staffing-crisis-deepens-in-nhs-england-with-110000-posts-unfilled

[11] National Health Service (2021). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2021 – Wave 2 Follow up to the 2017 Survey. NHS Digital. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2021-follow-up-to-the-2017-survey

[12] American Psychological Association (2021). Demand for mental health treatment continues to increase, say psychologists. Available at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2021/10/mental-health-treatment-demand

[13] Herring, D. (2012). Climate Change: Global Temperature Projections. US Climate and Environment Department. Available at: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature-projections#:~:text=Results%20from%20a%20wide%20range

[14] Voiland, A. (2021). Anticipating Future Sea Levels. NASA Earth Observatory. Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/148494/anticipating-future-sea-levels

[15] National Oceanography Centre (2018). Rising sea levels could cost the world $14 trillion a year by 2100 Available at: https://noc.ac.uk/news/rising-sea-levels-could-cost-world-14-trillion-year-2100#:~:text=Rising%20sea%20levels%20could%20cost

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