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Is a university degree enough these days?

University graduates

The number of students graduating with a first-class degree has doubled in the last 10 years, with one in six now gaining top honours. But is a good degree good enough when it comes to getting a graduate job?

New figures reveal that a record 61,000 graduates left university with a first last summer, with the numbers soaring in the past five years.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has branded the degree classification system as ‘barely fit for purpose’ and is calling for more universities to give graduates a report listing out their transferable skills, extra-curricular activities and work experience placements.

2:1, 2:2 – what’s in a number anyway?

As a recent graduate myself, I know just how much pressure there is to leave uni with a top degree under your belt. And this isn’t so that you’re a candidate for some of the best grad jobs around – it’s so you meet the criteria to apply for nearly any grad job. For the majority of the graduate-level roles I came across when doing the arduous job applications, a 2:1 was required ‘as a minimum’.

The feeling among my peer group at university was that if you didn’t graduate with at least a 2:1, your degree wasn’t worth it. Plus, first-year students told Which? University that the degree class awarded to previous grads is one of the top five things they wished they’d looked into.

Especially given the extent of uni fees now, it seems there’s more pressure than ever to make sure that university is worth it.

Leaving uni with more than just a degree

According to AGR chief executive Carl Gilleard, employers are increasingly using the degree classification system as ‘an automatic cut-off point’, rather than as an effective recruitment tool.

With a higher number of candidates leaving uni with at least a 2:1, you’d hope that all the extra stuff you’ve done beyond your academics could help mark you out. To that effect, Higher Education Achievement Reports will be issued to graduates from around 90 universities. These will help them showcase all the skills they’ve picked up during their degree to employers, rather than just their qualification.

The reports will include more info on academic achievements such as modules studied, individual exam results, details of extra-curricular activities, volunteering and work experience.

In our graduate survey last year, more than half told us they felt their class of degree helped their employment prospects. However, a third said they wished they had been more involved in extra-curricular activities and networking in order to help secure a graduate job.

Did your degree help you get to where you are today? Do you think the Higher Education Achievement Report would have been useful in getting you into the world of work?

Comments
Member

When I started working in the early 80s a degree was stated as a requirement to get a “better” job. Odd how the senior managers and directors don’t possess like. By the time the company started failing (around 2006/7), they’d moved on to requiring MBAs , MAs or Phds, a bachelors wasn’t seen as being highly prized enough to be able to command the ludicrous fees we were charging. Yet bachelors degrees where still good enough in the Far East offices, who would still be charged out at the same rate as the highly qualified UK staff, Odd that ( and they wondered why we were failing).

My daughter’s now closing in on getting a degree, not sure what benefit that will be . But as long as she’s happy and enjoying, good for her. Oh and she’s hoping to go on to do a Masters, although I suspect only to be able to point out she’s better qualified than I am. As she hates playing the hands up if you’ve got a degree game 🙂

Member

Thanks for sharing your thoughts William! I agree that times have definitely changed, and now a degree alone simply isn’t enough to guarantee you a ‘better’ job.

I’m still optimistic that your daughter will see the benefits of getting her degree though. I’ve recently graduated with an English degree – a degree that doesn’t lead into a particular career, but one I really enjoyed studying and that has given me more transferable skills than I was expecting! I definitely think it’s helped me to get a job – but I also think you need something ‘extra’ like work experience or volunteering to stand out among hundreds of job applications.

Member
James says:
11 January 2013

Nice article Becky, this is my opinions,

For certain fields (Medicine, Law etc) it’s near impossible to go far without a degree. For most other fields it isn’t essential, there will be people who read this blog and knows someone who succeeded without one. However a degree can give you though is a massive head start. As stated in your article, 2.1 degree seems to be a common criteria for 90% of Graduate schemes. These schemes are very well paid (considering the lack of practical experience the grad has), they have a lot of training and they often fast track an individual up the corporate ladder.

To get a Grad Scheme you do definitely need something else. A classic example of this is competency interviews, these are common at graduate level Interviews. You are asked 4-12 questions like,
When have you had a solution to a complex problem?
To answer these questions is impossible unless you have done a few work experiences/ part time jobs/ valid extra curricular activities. So in conclusion I would say that certainly to attain a highly competitive graduate programme a degree is not enough.

Obviously graduate schemes aren’t the be all and end all, but they are an obvious advantage of having a degree.

The question is, considering that University is supposed to be an education in specialist a subject, why should it be their responsibility to find experience for the students????

Member

Hi James. Thanks for your comments!

I think that the decision to go to uni can never be based purely on wanting to boost your employment prospects, as you do need to have a real interest in your subject – after all, you’ve got to study it for several years! But there is certainly the expectation that it’ll give you a head start when it comes to the job ladder as you say.

And yes, I agree that your experiences while studying your degree can only help you so far when it comes to those competency questions!

Your question is v. interesting. Personally, I think that a university should provide more than just experts and facilities to help you study your chosen subject – they should help you to demonstrate how you can apply the skills, knowledge etc. you’ve picked up while studying in the working world. Especially with the fee rises, students now expect support with careers as ‘value for money’ from the degree package.

What does everyone else think?

Member

University was partly about imparting knowledge, but importantly about developing the ability to acquire and use knowledge and to investigate constructively. This, then, was designed to produce people who would be good at entering into a job role (commercial, service or academic) and progressing successfully. It was not the only route available but gave employers a means of judging likely ability.

Then the system expanded rapidly by turning colleges into universities and introducing courses of doubtful value. The result was a lot more graduates but inevitably the standards in some cases were reduced. Employers will be choosy about picking from the better universities and courses, inevitably resulting in others finding it more difficult to automatically find the job they would like. Activities other than academic, including work experience, outside interests and so on will help support entry into a job.

Choice of university and course seems crucial in making a more assured future, and getting your choice is down to innate ability plus hard work through school. In other words, effort is the best way to be rewarded.

Member

Hi Malcolm. Thanks for your interesting comments!

I think that degrees still do equip graduates with useful skills for the workplace – but speaking from first-hand experience, I don’t think it’s always clear what transferable skills exactly you’ve gained while studying and how to sell them to an employer/ transfer them to work. It’s definitely easier to describe examples of work experience to demonstrate your ability in interviews!

I agree that university and course choices are more important than ever – although I do think that the ‘right choice’ really does depend on you as an individual and that university/ course reputation is just one factor to consider.

Member

As you say, university is about being able to come to a critical judgement about the subject you are studying and then being able to apply that ability to other walks of life. To demonstrate that you can do that means much independent study and report and dissertation writing. You won’t get very far (though it doesn’t stop some journalists) by blindly copying and pasting from Wikipedia.

Unfortunately nowadays many students (and their parents) don’t see it like that and there is much obsessing about ‘contact time’ as though university is just an extension of school. For £9000 a year they expect countless hours of lectures and supervised coursework. They expect to be spoon-fed enough information to pass their final exams with flying colours without actually having to apply their minds to anything. Many universities are tacitly willing to go along with this to attract the valuable fee income. However the graduates that emerge from these sausage machines don’t make particularly attractive employees and can’t figure out why – see first para!

The whole issue is a consequence of the marketization of higher education and is only destined to get worse.

Member
Stephen says:
18 January 2013

I got a 2:2 in BA (hons) Business Management which I got in 2004. I still owe the SLC £10,000.00. I am still at square one not earning more than others who didn’t do a degree. The problem is the Government are telling people to go to university when there are not the jobs available at the end of the course. It has been like this for years even before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

It appears to me that for the last 20 years the Government has had this stupid policy of allowing British jobs to go overseas to places such as India and China. In order to prevent embarrassing unemployment figures the Government just tells people to stay at school for as long as possible. So in response for the last 20 years the Government has been telling people to go to university. When I have been to job interviews and tell employers I have a degree they do not seem interested. The Government is using Universities to train people up for jobs that simply do not exist. It is a waste of UK taxpayers and students money.

I feel that I have wasted my time and my money doing a degree. Young people such as myself have been sold a pup. There are several stories in the media of those who have completed a university degree and are working in pubs, bars supermarkets etc because there are no jobs requiring the degree they have completed. This University thing that the Government is peddling is the biggest red herring ever. The best thing the Government could do is spend taxpayer funds on training people up for jobs that actually exist and also work on bringing the jobs back to Great Britain that have been outsourced overseas. The problem we have isn’t a shortage of graduates but a shortage of jobs. When are the Government going to get their act together ?

I understand that you only start to repay the loan when you are earning over £21,000.00. Since when was £21K a big wage! I would have thought you shouldn’t have to repay anything until you are earning at least £30,000.00. That would be far more sensible. I also think that it is a high rate of tax to be paying 20% + 9% = 29% income tax with NI on top.

It is irrelevant what this debt is called just focus on what I have outlined above to get things moving in the right direction. Question is when are the politicians going to wake up and get on with it ?

Member

It is your choice what educational route you choose, and whether you go on to higher education. Simply going to college or university does not entitle you to a well paid job; that depends upon your ability, experience, choice of course, and luck for example. Don’t blame the government; you are responsible for your own decisions.
What can be laid at Government’s door is the dumbing down of some qualifications – increase in lower quality universities, inappropriate courses, lower standard GCSE’s and A levels – that make employers wary of simply having paper qualifications.

Member

I have been waiting for someone to mention ‘dumbing down’. Anyone who does not believe that this has happened should discuss this with friends involved in higher education. Dumbing down and grade inflation (as a result of pressure to award higher class degrees) means that anyone going to university should set their sights high and aim for a First Class degree. Scraping through, having had to do resits or repeat a year, is not going to look good when applying for a job.

In the past, graduates were given only a degree classification. It is now common to give marks for every module, allowing graduates to provide evidence of where their strength lies.

Obviously it is useful to get inside information about a degree course from current students. Those in their final year are likely to be far better informed and know how to balance achievement with having fun at university. It’s important to look at the actual degree course and not just the overall reputation of the university.

Member
Stephen says:
19 January 2013

“Simply going to college or university does not entitle you to a well paid job; that depends upon your ability, experience, choice of course, and luck for example. Don’t blame the government; you are responsible for your own decisions.” – malcolm r

If what you say is true then why have governments for the last 20 years sold the university routine to young people in a way that has given the impression that if you go you will be able to get a really good job. I think it is time for the government to be honest and say that there are not enough jobs to go around for all the graduates that we have and that going to university is not going to make most people rich.

Member

Stephen, as I said, you are responsible for your own decisions. Don’t delegate these to the Government. You have to assess your own options. Yiou are no more entitled to a job than anyone else – whether through an academic, trade or other route. A job needs to be won. If one of your choice is not immediately available then earning money and experience through a less desirable occupation – albeit hopefully temporary – will help keep the wolf from the door.

Member
Stephen says:
19 January 2013

I have been doing a less desirable occupation for the last 9 years. I keep hoping my luck will change but it doesn’t seem to. Prospective students should not think that going to university is an automatic road to prosperity.

Member

Stephen

I agree that fewer students should be going to university, though my main justification is that a fair number don’t have the necessary motivation and aptitude to do do well. Universities cannot afford to chuck out too many students because they would lose income. The priority is to keep as many students as possible rather than help good students achieve their potential.

One day you may learn that job satisfaction and achievement are far more important than job satisfaction.

Member
Stephen says:
19 January 2013

“I agree that fewer students should be going to university, though my main justification is that a fair number don’t have the necessary motivation and aptitude to do do well. Universities cannot afford to chuck out too many students because they would lose income. The priority is to keep as many students as possible rather than help good students achieve their potential.”
-wavechange

To a certain extent I think that this is a fair point. However, I think that to say universities cannot afford to chuck out too many students beacuse they would lose income actually sums up a big problem with the HE system. It almost means that Universities do not exist for the customer i.e the student and actually students exist for the sake of the university. This turns around the idea that the customer is King. In most businesses they have to serve their customers well otheriwse they would go out of business. It seems to be a case of bums on seats.

I have also made the argument in the past that it should be possible for degrees to be completed in 2 years rather than 3 yrs if they scrapped the 4 months of annual leave every summer. When I have said this others have said the lecturers would want to be paid more because they would not get their 4 months annual leave every summer. Who should benefit from the existence of the university the student i.e the customer or the lecturer ?

Member

Stephen

Have you every heard of research? The long vacation is the best opportunity for academics to get on with this, attend conferences, write papers, spend more time with PhD students, etc. Trying to fit in any holiday can be a challenge. I’m thinking of science departments but I think you will find those business management work hard too. Like good students, good academics are highly motivated. It would be difficult to pursue research without the vacation and it’s well established that research-active staff make good lecturers. Time at university is not all about learning, so condensing a degree to two years might not be the best solution. If you had wanted to minimise debt you could have worked and saved money before applying to go to university.

Keeping students happy is very important for every teaching department in every university. We now have the National Student Survey, which is used both by prospective students and by universities. Feedback can be very rewarding but every comment is important, whether it is well informed or not. Universities have mechanisms for gaining feedback throughout and dealing with problems. My own approach was to be proactive so that we could help the current cohort and not just those in the following year. Helping disabled students can involve a huge amount of work, but its a case of complying with the law and sometimes being embarrassed by thanks.

Yes it’s still a case of ‘bums on seats’ but it is ultimately the student who is responsible for managing their time at university. A few students will devote their time to finding fault with the system and even getting their parents to file complaints. Sometimes the solution is a fresh start at another university or just leaving and getting a job.

Member
Stephen says:
23 January 2013

This programme on radio 4 sums up the extent of the problem –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pzs6t