With the advent of increased fees, the prospect of continually rising living costs, and a tight jobs market, students are under more pressure than ever before as they try to cash in on the hard work they've put in while studying to bag a good graduate job. In this climate of stiff competition, many students are planning for their working life earlier and earlier in their university lives.
But isn't university supposed to be more than a qualifications supermarket? Does anyone still believe that time spent taking an undergraduate degree can be a chance to grow, change, spend lazy afternoons considering the meaning of life, and, perhaps, even have some fun and make a few mistakes before settling on a career path? Or are such views indulgent, unrealistic and dated in the cold, hard light of the current economic climate?
We're not going to tell you here what to do with your life and with your time at university, but we have asked four commentators to give you their views on the issue. There's no right answer to the question of whether your first year should be about contemplation and fun or concentrating on your future, but we at The Gateway think it's certainly one that any student starting an undergraduate degree this autumn must consider.
Writes for graduate recruitment website Milkround.com
There's been huge demand for courses starting this autumn and a further scramble for places during clearing, but UCAS predicted in January that as many as 200,000 university hopefuls won't be starting courses this September. Many are likely to re-apply next year and brave the new tuition fee system, along with fresh school-leavers applying for the first time. Among all the questions asked amid the turbulence, one of the most common is surely, "What do students need to do to ensure they get a job at the end of their course?"
Before the recession the simple answer was apply for the jobs that interest you, and be sure to get in relatively early. The most diligent students would attend company presentations and careers fairs in their second year, to help shape their career ambitions ahead of the opening of graduate scheme applications in the September of their final year. It was even common for many finalists to apply in the summer of their last year, once their exams and assignments were at an end. Only few years ago, there would still be plenty of graduate jobs available at this stage. Fast forward to May 2011, however, and finalists had already made a record number of job applications. The demand for graduate roles, and the competition for them, has never been so fierce and, as a result, students need to think about their career paths at the start, rather than end, of their courses.
Staff cutbacks brought on by the recession have led to businesses wanting only the most proven talent for every job, and that includes their graduate intakes. With fewer places up for grabs, it's more important than ever for students to apply as soon as they can, using all the tactics they can think of to make their CV shine and to get it in front of the right people. For example, banking graduate schemes used to be open to those from all disciplines because of the sheer number of places available, but banks now look for those with relevant degrees who can show real drive and determination to be successful in the industry, such is the competition for places.
The simple truth is that your years of university study offer ample time to weigh up your career options, isolate the skills you need to build up, seek out the experiences which will fill the gaps and make you a highly-employable graduate, and, last but not least, go out and bag that job. If you want to guarantee that you'll be starting a graduate job as soon as you leave university, you need to be working towards it alongside, not as an afterthought to, getting your academic qualification. A degree in itself doesn't give you any kind of workplace value to wow employers - you have to get this yourself. It's only natural that those who seek out additional experience and have clear career direction from the moment they start university will be the ones who stand out from an increasingly large crowd.
EMEA Head of Firmwide Graduate Recruitment at Morgan Stanley
You need not choose your career path in your first year, but you should certainly start thinking about what you might like to do on finishing your degree.
The marks you get for the work you complete in the first year of your degree course usually don't count towards your final grade, so you should take advantage of this fact by getting involved in as many activities as possible outside your studies, to help you narrow down your list of potential career choices.
With so many professions and careers to choose from, it's beneficial to start focusing on your professional future from the day you start university by taking advantage of the various work experience and career taster programmes available to first years in different sectors and organisations. These first year schemes allow you to formulate a list of possible career paths in time for when you are eligible for longer internships the following year. They are also the perfect opportunity for you to get a sense of which areas most play to your strengths and interests, and where you're most likely to fit in and realise your potential.
Spent over ten years working at two leading asset management firms, and is now training to be a teacher
Try to imagine yourself, in the first month of your university career, meeting the you of three or four years ago. How differently do you perceive the world now, and how surprised do you think your former self would be to see you where you are today?
Starting out on a university course, you are again facing three (or possibly several more) years until you begin your career. You are in a completely new environment, probably living away from home for the first time in your life, and you are about to meet a wealth of new people, many of whom will be from very different backgrounds to your own, with new, thought-provoking, and possibly startling, points of view. You're going to be thinking very differently again in another three or four years time. If that weren't true, there would be, arguably, very little point in going to university at all.
So why would you, at this early stage, drastically narrow the range of possible careers available to this future, potentially much-altered, version of yourself? How are you realistically able to judge what will be appropriate for you by the time university is over? It seems to me that choosing a specific career path in the first year of university might cause problems and regrets later on.
There is a school of thought which argues that my view misses the reality of an increasingly competitive market for graduate jobs, particularly in finance. Doesn't a potential applicant need to be less idealistic and more pragmatic about self-development when it comes to filling their CV with as much relevant work experience as possible? As someone who got a graduate entry asset management job without much direct experience, and subsequently saw the hiring process from the other side of the table, I strongly believe that the answer is "No".
Imagine, say, a banking firm, with a graduate intake made up entirely of those studying two or three of the most obviously "relevant" degrees. And further imagine that the graduates have all spent the entirety of their university summers interning at banks. Would you like to work in such a monomaniacal culture? Perhaps, but then think of it from the recruiters' point of view. They want an interesting group of people to work with, and for many (though admittedly not all) this means hiring people with a diverse set of experiences. I have come across several recruiters who are suspicious of candidates with too focused a CV, asking, "How come they are so sure of what they want to do? I didn't know at their age."
None of which is to say that you don't need some work experience. But, for those interested in finance, that probably means aiming for an internship at the end of your penultimate year, for which you'll need decent academic grades and the sort of industry knowledge it takes days and weeks, rather than months or years, to read up on. This approach leaves you free in the earlier terms and holidays to enjoy your course, pursue any other interests or ambitions you may have and, well, have fun.
Students at university should only concern themselves with two things: learning and discovery. For the next few years, your time should be spent learning as much as humanly possible. How else will you discover what you are good at, and what you would love to do every day?
Ask many graduates, and you'll find that the degree they graduated with often wasn't the one for which they originally applied, myself included. I have benefited greatly from this flexibility as I'm sure many of my peers have. However, university education is currently at risk of becoming excessively job-focused and of no longer allowing students to change their career aspirations during the three or four years of their course. Students need to be allowed room to develop new interests and gain desirable skills as they move through a degree, and should not feel pressured into choosing their career path as early as their first year.
If university students just focus on what their chosen career path requires from this early stage, they may miss out on much of what their subject and university can offer them. University is a time to challenge yourself academically and, more importantly in my opinion, to develop as a person. If I had chosen my career path as early as my first year of university, I would not have had the chance to acknowledge the connections of my field of study to other disciplines, ideas or cultures. My academic blinders would have been on, and I would have headed straight for the finishing line of graduation without truly winning the race.
Students who instead apply themselves to learning from their peers, particularly those studying dissimilar subjects, will acquire the ability to establish, maintain, and improve lasting relationships, to work in cooperation with others, and to learn collaboratively. These graduates will also be able to recognise hidden connections between different areas of knowledge and ideas. They will have a competitive advantage in the job market, as they will grasp the "big picture" and will be able to perceive, innovate, and rise to power, fastest.