April 24, 2009 / 2:55 PM / 10 years ago

UK's top students look to teaching as economy wilts

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Students nearing graduation from Britain’s elite universities say the recession is making them reconsider how and when to enter the job market, with many shunning careers in finance.

The Oxford University rowing team train on the River Thames in west London March 27, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Vocations such as teaching, public service and academia are drawing more attention from top students as the luster of lucrative but high-pressure jobs in finance, banking and consultancy fades in the downturn.

“There is some skepticism about certain sectors: banking, fund management, and venture capitalism,” Gordon Chesterman, head of career services at the University of Cambridge, told Reuters.

“Students are very well informed — they read the papers — and they’re shying away from the hard-hit sectors.”

Despite record layoffs, most banks and financial institutions are keeping their recruitment programs alive, with some adjustments. New recruits are often told their starting date has been deferred until the next fiscal year — a cost-saving measure also adopted by many law firms and consultancies.

Finance remains a popular career choice with students at Oxford and Cambridge, but the specter of layoffs and worries over job security have led many to review their options.

While bank recruiters are still flocking to university career fairs around graduation time, fewer students are showing up to chat with them and take home brochures, Chesterman said.

Instead, many prospective graduates at Oxford and Cambridge told Reuters they were looking for jobs outside of finance or deferring their entry into the workforce altogether.

“People are being realistic,” said Lewis Iwu, president of the Oxford student union. “They’re looking at graduate work, at the teaching sector, at jobs outside of the financial sector.”

Ed Cummings, a 22-year-old English student at Cambridge who wants to become a journalist, said he would move home to London and live “hand to mouth” if he didn’t find a job at a major British daily paper soon after graduating in June.

“There isn’t that guarantee that I could go into the City and make loads of cash,” he said. “It’s definitely tightening up (job market), but if anything, that’s focused my interest.”

Jonathan Black, head of career services at Oxford, said the number of applicants for Teach First, a charity which offers students two years’ employment at challenging schools, had nearly doubled in the past year to 80.

“You get what you can, and right now teaching or working for the government definitely seems a lot safer to many students,” he said.

Some engineering and medical students are even turning to the army for the promise of training and a stable paycheck — an unusual choice for Oxford graduates, Black said.

“They’re seeing it as a bit of a safe-haven,” he said.


The dire state of Britain’s job market — recent figures showed 2.1 million people out of a job, the highest since 1997 — has led many students to delay joining the workforce or extend their stay in academia until the worst blows over.

“At the moment I look at the job market and think it’s just not the best thing for me to do at the moment,” said 21-year-old Kiran Moodley, a student of history at Cambridge who has been accepted to the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.

Applications for post-graduate study at Oxford jumped 20 percent in the past year, Oxford’s Jonathan Black said, as more students sought to build skills before braving the job market.

And across the country, the number of university applications has soared by nearly 9 percent to more than half a million, but many of those will fail to get a place.

Britain’s university admissions service, Ucas, says nearly 30,000 would-be students in England will not be able to attend this year due to government curbs on student numbers.

“Applicants of all ages are clearly making the correct assessment that it is better to invest now in their education and training,” NUS President Wes Streeting said in a statement.

“We understand the current pressures on public finances, but the government must also make the right long-term decisions.”

Still, for Ed Cummings, there is an upside even to this job market: not having to explain yourself at every turn.

“It’s quite a nice excuse to justify the fact that you don’t know what you’re going to be doing,” he said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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