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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 t