What’s the value of an economics degree?

All views in this article are the author’s own personal views and should not be attributed to CTaLE, UCL or any other organisation that the author is associated with.

Here at UCL Economics we are coming towards the end of our intensive summer exam season. Students and staff have worked really hard and for our final year students the time has come to find out what class of economics degree they have obtained. There will be, as there is every year in every university, joy and disappointment when results come out. Twenty-one years since I obtained my final year degree results it makes me think about how important that degree classification really is.

As a lecturer, as a Mum of a child who sat Year 6 SATS in May and as a Governor of a primary school I have been exposed to different forms of testing and learning assessment in my time and I’m fairly sure none of them tell the full story of what students actually learn during their time at school or university. Looking back over my time as a student the things that stand to me now are an ability to step back from a problem and use logic and economic reasoning to evaluate it; a willingness to think things through for myself and seek help, from the literature, from colleagues and from wider support networks, where needed; and more generally a deep appreciation of what I know and how to find answers to what I don’t know. Much of this comes from the process of learning and is not necessarily reflected in a transcript or a degree classification.  A student with an ordinary degree in economics may have strong team working and presenting skills, but struggle to get their ideas across in an exam setting. A student with a first class degree may have excellent technical knowledge of a subject but struggle to apply the technical tools to real world applications. One degree is better, in the sense of hitting an academic standard in a particular piece, or pieces, of assessment but both students should be confident that their learning has developed during their time at university to a point where they have more to offer an employer or wider society than they did when they started.

It is always hard for students to step away from formal assessment, particularly this time of year, to reflect on the wider set of skills and knowledge they have developed on their economics degree. At CTaLE we are working hard to help students work on their critical thinking, team-working, presenting and communication skills, both inside the curriculum and in wider activities such as the First Year Challenge, Explore Econ and Economics Skills Lab. I hope that students, whatever their degree classification, will reap the benefits of learning in different ways with different people long into the future. We have some work to do to get assessment methods to better reflect different attributes of learning and knowledge but it is safe to say that the final degree classification will never in itself fully reflect the outcomes that each individual will leave university with.

I hope that our students find ways to appreciate and build on what they have learned. They should be proud of their efforts and more aware of what they have to offer. Perhaps more importantly,  I hope that employers find ways to identify what an individual has to offer that goes beyond a headline degree classification. This is particularly important when the content and context of economic degree programmes vary so much, most notably when we move beyond textbook technical courses in micro, macro and econometrics, and indeed when the method used to calculate a degree classification (median, mean, weighted mean) is different across universities. I would urge all employers to take a second look at that candidate with a 2.2 degree; they may have done something different and impressive that would be of value to any organisation. And I encourage all economics graduates, whatever their degree classification, to promote what they know and have learned to employers to show that whilst the degree classification tells something it is not the whole story.