Does the subject matter?

  • Note: My degree is in Geology. Apart from a year or two trying to find a place and job for myself in the UK oil & gas industry right after graduation, I have not used any of the subject-specific learning I did for my coursework or exams since, well, since I graduated. And that’s nearly 30 years ago!

The last few years have seen a growing narrative around so-called “Mickey Mouse degrees,” with some suggesting that some university degrees lack practical value or do not adequately prepare graduates for the job market. As someone who has been deeply immersed in higher education, learning technology, and learning design for more than 17 years, and with my background in geology (a subject I do not use in my current professional role) I feel compelled to address the broader value of pursuing a degree between the ages of 18 and 22.

The Geology of personal growth

When I reflect on my undergraduate years studying geology, it’s clear that the true value of my degree extends far beyond the mineralogy, stratigraphy, petrology, paleobiology, sedimentology, vulcanology and tectonics I studied (I had to dig deep to remember some of them!). While I obviously don’t apply geological concepts in my day-to-day work, the skills and experiences I gained during that period in my life have been indispensable in shaping my career and personal development.

I will even go so far as to (finally) admit to myself and my parents, that my choice of degree had more to do with the fact the programme leader said he had “two spare seats and I need them filled”. Honest. That’s what I was told. I was just grateful to be accepted to study – my A-level grades were awful!

Developing critical life skills

A university education offers a unique environment where students, often away from home, family, and childhood friends for the first time, can cultivate a host of essential life skills. Here are just a few:

  • Self-discipline and time management: The rigours of managing lectures, seminars, deadlines, coursework, assignments, and exams teach students how to prioritise tasks and manage their time effectively (not to mention the increasing need to earn-while-you-learn to be able to afford to live). These skills are universally applicable, regardless of the career path the student eventually follows.
  • Dedication and persistence: Completing a degree requires sustained effort and resilience. Students learn to persevere through challenges, academic or personal, whether they are grappling with complex theories or balancing part-time jobs with their studies.
  • Problem-solving: Academic rigour demands a level of analytical thinking that is crucial in virtually every field. The ability to approach problems systematically, evaluate evidence, and formulate reasoned conclusions is a skill honed through years of study and research.
  • Communication skills: Writing essays, delivering presentations, and participating in discussions help students develop their ability to communicate ideas clearly and effectively. These skills are vital in both professional and personal contexts and ensure the student is a ready and capable employee upon graduation and entry to the workforce, irrespective of the affiliation to the degree subject.
  • Cultural awareness and diversity: University campuses are areas of diverse cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds. This exposure fosters cultural awareness, empathy, and the ability to work effectively in diverse environments, which is increasingly important in our globalised world.
  • Collaboration and networking: University life fosters collaboration through group projects and extracurricular activities. Building a network of peers and mentors can provide support and open doors throughout one’s career.
  • Civic engagement and social responsibility: Many universities encourage civic engagement and social responsibility through community service, activism, and involvement in societal issues. This helps students become active and informed citizens.
  • Personal independence and responsibility: Living away from home, managing finances, and making independent decisions are significant aspects of university life. These experiences build personal responsibility and prepare students for the years ahead.

The broader benefits of higher education

Beyond these tangible skills, university education also promotes intellectual curiosity and a lifelong love of learning. It exposes students to diverse perspectives, encouraging them to think critically about the world around them. This intellectual flexibility is invaluable in adapting to an ever-changing job market.

Re-evaluating the ‘Mickey Mouse’ critique

The term “Mickey Mouse degree” dismisses the broader benefits of higher education and undermines the diverse contributions that graduates make to society. While it is important to ensure that educational programs remain relevant and rigorous, we should also recognise that the value of a degree cannot be measured solely by immediate job prospects.

For instance, the recent comments by UK Prime Minister and other officials have stirred significant debate. The government has proposed reallocating funds from so-called low-value degrees to apprenticeships, arguing that some courses do not increase long-term earning potential or adequately prepare students for the job market​. This perspective, however, overlooks the broader skills and personal growth that higher education fosters.

Embracing a holistic view of education

In my current role, I advocate for a more holistic view of education. Learning is not just about acquiring specific knowledge to pass an exam or to get a job; it’s about developing as a person. The university experience helps young adults navigate the complexities of the modern world, equipping them with the skills, confidence, and resilience needed to succeed in any endeavour.

So, when we consider the worth of a degree, let’s look beyond the surface. Let’s appreciate the myriad ways in which higher education enriches lives, builds character, and prepares individuals for a future filled with possibility. The true value of a degree lies not just in the subject studied, but in the journey of growth and discovery it represents.

I know I would not be where I am today, both personally or professionally, had I not persevered through the difficulties I experienced in my four years at university. Even today, I know there is much I don’t know, and this keeps me interested and inquisitive for what I might learn tomorrow. I learned this about myself whilst doing what is, for all intense purposes, a wasted university degree – not a ‘Mickey Mouse degree’, but still wasted on me.

PS. I still love aspects of Geology. I had to be held back (literally) earlier this year when I visited Iceland with my family – I was all for driving to see the Sýlingafell volcano on its 4th eruption this year. I’m off to Norway again later this year … fjords and mountains are just spectacular, as are the processes that create them.


  • ‘UK universities valued more than institutions like parliament and BBC, finds survey’ (Richard Adams)
  • ‘In defence of Mickey Mouse degrees’ (James Graham)
  • ‘I got a Mickey Mouse degree, minister – and what’s wrong with that?’ (Ryan Coogan)
  • ‘Crackdown On ‘Mickey Mouse Degrees’ Will Hit Poorest Students Hardest’ (Nick Morrison)
  • ‘Can someone tell Rishi Sunak how influential Mickey Mouse is?’ (Sophie Hogan)
  • ‘Don’t take the Mickey: Why creative degrees need more respect from Tory ‘big cheeses’ (Nia Evans)

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash