The Degree Dilemma

It used to be easy.  If you were smart enough and willing to study you stayed at school to take A Levels and then went to either University or Polytechnic.  As you approached graduation you were presented with a massive book listing all the companies who were interested in recruiting graduates, you attended a couple of recruitment fairs, applied for a few jobs and before you knew it you joined the careers ladder a few rungs off the bottom.

For graduates in the 1980s, when I was at University, life was relatively easy.  In the early 80s less than 10% of school leavers went on to Higher Education, creating an elite group that the best employers were keen to recruit.  Since then the situation has changed immeasurably.  By 1995 the proportion of young people entering higher education had risen to 30% and in 2009 it was 43%.

When university graduates were a small proportion of the population and demand for them was high, employers were willing to pay a significant premium to recruit them over applicants who did not have a degree.  Ironically, the Government used this historic data to justify moving from grant funding of university education to the current “Student Loan” system, despite the fact that at the same time they were diminishing the rarity value of a degree by persuading an ever increasing proportion of young people to study for one.

In 1980 there were 47 Universities in the UK providing courses for around 282,000 students.* Today there are 150 bodies authorised to award degrees with a further 600 organisations running undergraduate degree courses and, although we are not supposed to admit it, some are not as highly regarded by employers as others!

The result is that for an A Level student leaving school this summer, the decision as to whether to go to University or not has never been more difficult.  Which brings me to the point of this article – is any degree better than no degree at all?

To answer this question, imagine that you are looking to recruit a bright, “graduate calibre” employee and you have just two applicants.  Both are equally well presented, physically fit, confident and articulate.  One has a degree in a non-vocational subject from a University that you have never heard and good references from their tutor and old headmaster, the other has three years work experience and good references from their previous and existing employers.  Which one are you likely to favour?

The interesting thing is that despite the Government’s assertion that the debt incurred by going to university is not a problem as it will be repaid easily by the extra income you will command as a result, the majority of the people I have asked this question of have said that they would tend to favour the person with work experience. 

Since going to university is therefore no longer the automatic logical choice for many young people, there now exists a group of people that have traditionally not been targeted by employers.  In the past, the larger organisations have offered apprenticeships to one set of recruits and graduate intake programmes to others.  Now there is an opportunity to specifically target a new market – Graduate Calibre, No Degree (GCND).

With many employers claiming that the calibre of graduates applying for jobs has declined in recent years and that far too many of them are graduating with degrees in non-vocational subjects, the opportunity exists to target a new recruitment programme at the GCNDs.

Not only would this enable organisations to get graduate calibre people into the workforce sooner, if their employment were combined with a study-leave programme, it would also allow them to steer their academic development along more vocational lines. 

The benefit to the individual is obvious – an on-the-job training programme that provides qualifications without the need for a Student Loan.

* Sounce: British Universities Past and Present by Robert Anderson.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.

  University dilemma