Tough times and a tight job market have failed to put students off arts degrees, and philosophy and religious studies are continuing to prove more popular than chemistry.
Just 6 per cent of university students enrolled in engineering last year, compared to more than a third who chose to study society, cultural or creative arts subjects.
And twice as many students studied creative arts as information technology, according to preliminary data released by the Tertiary Education Commission.
Students appear to be ignoring Labour Department advice that job growth is expected to be in retail, hospitality, business, agriculture and manufacturing over the next few years.
The fastest-moving jobs in February were in manufacturing, administration, education, energy industry and information technology, yet students continue to flock to arts papers. About 34,000 people enrolled in society and culture papers last year.
Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly said students should be able to choose what they wanted to study, but did need more education on what their qualifications could get them. "Don't force people to study what they don't want to – if you want to do a psychology degree, go for your life – but send them signals."
Not all degrees were created equal when it came to finding work, he said.
"Employers tend to cry out for degrees that cover science, technology, engineering and maths."
Just last week he spoke to an employer desperate for engineers. "The way to solve that problem is to make the process more informed. There's a real lack of information in the middle and senior schools."
Students heading for university had to have realistic expectations of pay, job prospects and what the hoped-for job entailed first, he said.
O'Reilly, an arts graduate who majored in history, said the choice had to be left to students because an arts degree would still get them a job, it just might take longer. "Having a degree is a lot better than not having a degree."
He said any changing trend in courses would take a few years to show in statistics because of the lag between high school and graduation.
Auckland job-seeker Kim Davidson, who graduated with a bachelor of arts last year, felt there was a bias against arts graduates. One recruitment company had told her it couldn't help because a psychology degree wasn't enough in the current job market.
Her interest in people drew her to study psychology and sociology. "It's important to know and understand people, and that filters into so many things – job performance and understanding how people work and think. Unfortunately a lot of businesses haven't clicked to that and they're missing out because psychology does teach you critical thinking."
Davidson has a part-time counselling job, but said she would like to move into a more business-orientated role.
"I've been trying to get into human relations but they haven't been responding. It feels like an arts degree isn't enough, and you need honours, as well as being trained in something specific."
Auckland University of Technology vice-chancellor Derek McCormack said arts students learnt vital skills, including essay writing, analysis and communication skills. "What you are learning is not just narrow skills for a job, you're learning transferable skills for a career, and that requires an ability to access and interpret data."
- Sunday Star Times