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Why choose to study a joint honours degree?

  • 10 November 2021
  • By Louise Pigden and Garford Moore

This blog was contributed by Louise Pigden (@elouisepigden), Deputy Dean in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Derby and Dr Garford Moore (@GarfordMoore), Policy and Insights Analyst at the University of Derby. Both would welcome dialogue around joint honours students, social mobility, and graduate outcomes.

Leading a large joint honours degree portfolio at the University of Derby motivated us to consider why some students choose to study two subjects, rather than the more usual one. How do these students find their learning experience, and how good are their graduate outcomes? Are the students well-served by making this degree choice?

Unfortunately, publicly available datasets relating to UK university students and graduates do not directly publish outcomes for joint honours subject combinations. Instead, they apportion data between the individual subjects studied and therefore, it is difficult to directly evaluate joint honours degrees. We felt that further research into joint honours degrees would contribute valuable insight into this area, which accounts for 10 per cent of UK undergraduates, or around 50,000 new enrolments each year.

Potential benefits and drawbacks

In choosing to study a joint honours degree, students opt to maintain a broader base of study, and for many students the pleasure and satisfaction of studying across different academic subjects that they love is reward enough. However, students may also justifiably feel that their degree confers certain longer-term advantages. For example, a joint honours degree may expand their career options or acquire a greater flexibility of skills leading to an enhanced likelihood of graduate employment. But might these perceived advantages come at a cost to the student?

Our experience and the literature suggest a range of possible practical difficulties when studying a joint honours degree, such as timetabling issues and assessment deadline bunching. It’s possible that joint honours students can be excluded from certain institutional norms that can affect their educational outcomes. Different academic subjects will have diverse approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, the mastery of which can present greater cognitive loading on the student when switching their learning activities between the subjects. Do joint honours degree students consider themselves to fully belong to both academic cultures, or can they potentially feel like outsiders? Could these experiences adversely affect the student’s learning experience to such an extent that their academic outcomes, personal development, and graduate employment are impacted?

To explore all this, we investigated the key metric of graduate employment and found a way to directly establish joint honours graduate employment rates from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey data. This addressed the more usual approach of distributing student outcomes between the individual subjects, which leads to a loss of transparency of employment information.

Overall, single honours graduates have better outcomes than joint graduates six months after graduating

We found that, at the national level, there was a small but persistent 3 percentage point negative year-on-year effect on graduate employment for joint honours students compared with single honours. However, the national picture hid variation in the graduate employment gap between single and joint honours degrees. There turned out to be larger differences between the Russell Group and Post-92 universities, and between nations of the UK.

Graduates of the Russell Group had higher rates of graduate employment than the Post-92s, and interestingly the graduate employment gap between single and joint honours was much smaller. Scottish universities had a much smaller graduate employment gap between single and joint honours students, perhaps reflective of Scottish universities having four-year degrees with a universal breadth of study, which therefore normalised a multi-subject approach to study.

We then went on to consider whether there was a relationship between the small, negative graduate employment gap for joint honours graduates and the students’ levels of prior educational advantage at the time of their admittance to university. We knew that the Russell Group admitted disproportionately more educationally advantaged students, identified for example by the POLAR4 quintiles measure, which measure the participation of young people in higher education, by local areas. How, if at all, was this related to the graduate employment rates for joint honours graduates?

Joint Honours graduate employment and the students’ prior educational advantage

Averaging over all universities in the UK, we demonstrated a tendency for both single honours and joint honours graduates from higher participation POLAR4 quintiles to be more likely to be in a graduate job, i.e., students who were more educationally advantaged prior to going to university, were then also more likely to secure a graduate job following graduation, their advantage persisting over the course of a university education.

We found that the lowest POLAR4 quintile (most educationally disadvantaged) graduates who had studied at the Russell Group, had a higher graduate employment rate than either single or joint honours graduates who had studied at Post-92 universities. The lowest quintile graduates of the Russell Group had a higher rate of graduate employment than the highest quintile graduates from Post-92 universities, for both single and joint honours graduates. This finding led us to consider the employers’ perspective in future research to explore structural disadvantages that might be affecting graduate employment.

We also showed that there was a smaller graduate employment gap between single honours and joint honours graduates, the higher their POLAR4 quintile. The smallest graduate employment gap was found in graduates from POLAR4 quintile 5 (most educationally advantaged) and the largest gap in graduates from POLAR4 quintile 1 (least educationally advantaged).

The distribution of joint honours students studying at the Russell Group and Post-92s

Examining the Russell Group and Post-92 universities as two distinct groups, a quite different profile emerged of the employment gap between single and joint honours degrees, compared with the national picture. In both the Russell Group or Post-92 universities, the graduate employment gap between the single and joint honours graduates remained consistent, regardless of the POLAR4 quintile. Secondly, the gap was larger in Post-92 universities than the Russell Group.

The different profile at the national level therefore required explanation, and we were able to demonstrate that the proportion of POLAR4 quintile 5 joint honours graduates from the Russell Group was disproportionately high and, in any quintile, there were proportionately more joint honours graduates from the Russell Group, compared with single honours graduates, and increasingly so the higher the quintile.

The effect of this was that in the Russell Group, the rate of increase in the proportion of joint honours graduates for the higher quintiles was faster than the rate of increase in the proportion of single honours graduates in the higher quintiles. This resulted, at the national level, in a smaller graduate employment gap between single honours and joint honours graduates, the higher the POLAR4 quintile. Explaining the national level data by investigating the distribution of high and low quintile graduates in the Russell Group and Post-92 universities was important, in avoiding wrongly concluding that high quintile joint honours graduates were somehow more successful, relative to single honours, in securing graduate roles than low quintile graduates.

Interestingly, our data show that at both Russell Group and Post-92 universities, there is a persistent gap in employment outcomes between single and joint honours graduates across all POLAR quintiles.

Next steps

In our next research project, we went on to consider the effect of UCAS tariff and classification of degree achieved, on subsequent graduate employment.

At the University of Derby, the most recent HESA Widening Participation indicators show that in 2019/20 the university has 23.8 per cent of its UK domiciled young full-time undergraduate entrants from the lowest POLAR quintile (most educationally disadvantaged). This compares to 11.8 per cent for England as whole, so just over double the proportion. Therefore, social mobility is in our institutional DNA, and enabling all students to achieve their career ambitions drives our learning and teaching strategy, with our applied research informing the curriculum.

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