E(x) Development

A degree alone is no longer enough

Is a Degree Still the Golden Ticket to a Successful Career?

The graduate population has grown dramatically, from 3.4% in the 1950s, to around 15% of school leavers when Blair was at Oxford in the 1970s, to more than 52% today. In the last century, a degree by itself not only set you apart, it made you part of the elite.

Today, the likelihood that your degree will set you apart is arguably no better than a coin toss.

Graduates preparing to leave Britain’s universities are facing the toughest job market in years. The number of available spots has decreased, and the wages for those positions are lagging behind the increase in the cost of living. According to Reed Recruitment’s job vacancy data, the situation is quite grim, and Bloomberg has been producing monthly readouts on the state of the job market in England.


How is the Government Responding?

More than two decades after Tony Blair’s landmark 1999 speech setting a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education, there is a growing sense that Britain has hit “peak university”. Recently a group of MPs said our obsession with university is fuelling our migration problem. “Possibly too many people have gone to university over the last few years,” said Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich. “Our education system in many respects hasn’t given our country the skills it needs.”

Tony Blair’s son has even gone as far as to suggest that the ‘university model is broken‘.

According to David Goodhart at the think tank Policy Exchange, a third of those who have been to university are not in “graduate employment” five to 10 years later, creating a “new generation of dissatisfied” young people.

The government is vocal on the subject of asking Universities to reduce the number of ‘nonsense degrees’.

While this is certainly a laudable goal, there are problems with this approach. For one, the university regulator already has the power to act in this regard. So why haven’t they acted? What challenges do they face? Moreover, what exactly constitutes a “nonsense degree”? Various articles and studies have listed degrees like “David Beckham Studies” or “Equestrian Psychology” as some of the least valuable in terms of job prospects. While the value of any degree can be subjective, the government’s focus on these so-called “nonsense degrees” raises questions about the broader purpose and value of higher education. It also cannot account for, or address, such a large number of employers perceiving a deficiency in skill. (see our other blog post on this topic).


How are Companies Responding?

Getting an undergraduate degree today shows you have a foundation of knowledge and skill. However, employers are increasingly seeking those with postgraduate qualifications as proof of their ability to think, analyse, solve problems, communicate effectively, and improve outcomes. This is a natural progression. Companies will always seek differentiators, and everybody naturally tends more towards easy solutions.

There are a few problems with this approach, in our view:

  • Postgraduate qualifications don’t necessarily provide the skills that make people stand out in the workplace. The workplace is a broad arena, with different industries, environments, company cultures, politics, and individual characters.
  • The additional financial obstacle of postgraduate studies is significant. Recent changes to student loans place more burden on students, and a move towards the American model of education funding seems increasingly plausible.
  • Additional academic qualifications do not significantly impact job security. When redundancies occur, the process can be messy, often leading to the departure of fantastic employees.
  • After a decade in the workforce, experience and achievements dominate hiring decisions, rendering additional qualifications less impactful.

Many HR managers argue that their refined hiring processes identify the ‘best’ candidates. With the advent of ‘competency-based’ structured interviews and an increasing number of interview rounds, there’s much debate about the efficacy of these methods. One thing is undisputable though – while companies focus on their objectives, the individual’s goals often take a backseat.


What Do We Think?

We believe that the current educational landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. While degrees remain valuable, their intrinsic worth is being diluted in an oversaturated market. But it’s not just about the quantity; it’s about the quality and relevance of the education being provided.

  • Holistic Development: Universities should focus on producing well-rounded individuals, not just degree holders. This means emphasizing soft skills like communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence, which are often more valuable in the real world than specific academic knowledge.
  • Real-world Relevance: Theoretical knowledge is essential, but without practical application, it remains abstract. Universities should incorporate more real-world scenarios, internships, and industry collaborations to make the curriculum more relevant to today’s job market.
  • Lifelong Learning: In an ever-evolving world, learning cannot stop after a three or four-year degree. Universities and educational institutions should promote the idea of lifelong learning, offering modular courses and upskilling opportunities that cater to the changing demands of various industries.
  • Mental Well-being: The pressure to excel academically often takes a toll on students’ mental health. Universities should prioritize mental well-being, offering support systems, counseling, and creating an environment where students feel safe to discuss their challenges.
  • Financial Accessibility: With rising tuition fees, higher education is becoming less accessible to many. There’s a need for more scholarships, financial aid, and alternative funding methods to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue higher education.

In essence, while degrees are essential, they are just one piece of the puzzle. The real value lies in the experiences, skills, and mindset that students gain during their time at university. It’s time for educational institutions to recognise this and adapt accordingly. But there is scant evidence of rapid movement in that direction.

Meanwhile, a bridge is needed to close the gap and provide meaningful support to the next generation of experts and leaders. The people best placed to help fill that gap are people with a wealth of practical experience, who have lived through the challenges and who understand better how people stand out from the crowd.


So, What to Do?

If the Government isn’t going to sort things out for you, and if companies are only working towards their best interests, then there’s only one player left in the game:


Focus on making yourself a valuable asset.

We can show you how, on our Career Kickstart Programme.