Tom Quayle: The University Challenge: What is a degree worth in 2015?

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This year marks the graduation of the first students who had to pay £9,000 a year in tuition fees – and, worryingly, ComRes recently revealed that half of them feel their degrees weren’t worth the money. The study also found that nearly half of the class of 2015 wish they’d done another course altogether. That’s a staggering £27,000 worth of tuition fees potentially wasted. Whichever way you look at it, that’s far too high.

The reality of postgraduate life can be stark. Many struggle to find jobs at all– let alone roles where they can directly utilise the skills they learned while studying.

But have the class of 2015 really wasted three years of their lives on useless degrees?

Probably not – going to University is useful for lots of reasons. But here’s a question: Could organisations hire 16-year-olds if they had the right attributes, but less academic qualifications, to do the jobs conventionally provided to graduates?

Measures of success

From our work at The Chemistry Group, we know that in many cases graduates don’t have much ‘real-world’ experience. They might have a few months under their belt in a summer internship but, clearly, it only takes a few months for someone with no experience to bridge that gap. This is one of many reasons businesses have to look beyond experience at the individual themselves and ask, “what does this person actually need to perform in the role?”

In theory, if smart businesses should be focussing on the individual themselves, should it really matter which university they went to, which degree they did, or even if they went at all? Google has found there to be zero correlation between academic qualifications and success. Yet most organisations still scan for ‘Russell Group’ universities on graduate CVs.

You have to ask what value the history of the building an individual has studied in really has, or whether in-depth knowledge of ancient Greek is really necessary for a job in law. Rather than scanning for an Oxbridge, Durham or LSE-educated candidate, employers need to think carefully about the key requirements of the role and the kinds of attributes the employee must possess.

The banking industry provides an example of this trend. Good degrees – usually classified as a 2:1 or above – are typically essential for graduates wanting to work in this area, but evidence shows that it takes much more than just academic ability to thrive in the banking environment. A study from the Bank Workers Charity last year found that 60 percent of bankers were suffering from stress and poor wellbeing in the workplace – It’s no good having a great degree if you aren’t resilient enough to survive in a high pressure environment.

In this sector – like any other – employers should think about what is really needed to succeed (i.e. candidate resilience) as much as they do educational background.

So how should companies that want to look beyond the CV find evidence of the right qualities, experience and behaviours that are the true measure of young hires worth investing in?

Going beyond employment history

As mentioned previously, most graduates haven’t got a great deal of relevant experience before they start their career and employers must keep asking themselves whether a couple of weeks or months spent doing admin work is really an indicator of potential. At the same time though, a recent study from High Fliers Research shows that half of this year’s university finalists have undertaken course placements, unpaid internships or similar while studying, seemingly to boost their chances of getting a job post-graduation. The majority have even given priority to these over part-time, paying jobs – potentially sacrificing much needed spare cash.

For many, it seems that work experience is no longer a ‘nice to have’ item on a CV, it has now come to be seen as a necessity to stand out in the crowd. This short-sighted approach could be depriving companies of top talent. Some people can’t afford not to work while studying and others may have opted to build their life experience with activities such as volunteering or travelling. Does that make them somehow less talented? When interviewing candidates with less experience, it’s important to consider their motivations for choosing certain paths and whether they fit with what they’ll be expected to do in their role. We certainly shouldn’t rule out potentially strong candidates simply because they haven’t been able to (or even haven’t wanted to) gain work experience while studying.

In our experience at The Chemistry Group, many employers find that experience is frequently the least accurate predictor of future performance when weighed against analysing the whole profile of a candidate. Hiring an employee shouldn’t just be about the experience they have – but rather what they’re capable of doing for your business in the future.

Behaviours

The fact of the matter is, organisations need to broaden their horizons and focus on the bigger picture. Looking at the personality of candidates will more accurately predict performance as you can tell a lot about a person by analysing the full spectrum of their capabilities, not just relying on their CV for insights. A lot of organisations do ‘screen for intellect’ when recruiting for graduate schemes, but this is still only a small part of the story and in many cases, might not actually be the right attribute to hire on. Think back to the banking scenario; would intellect really help avoid succumbing to stress?

Graduate assessment centres could also be failing us in terms of picking out the right hires, with the right behaviours. Consisting of around six candidates, all eager to impress their interviewers, there tends to be a case of ‘battling for the limelight’ – a battle that is usually won by the extroverts. But what about those who sit quietly, yet might actually be just as good as their competition? Do you want somebody loud or somebody good?

You can train many types of people up to become great at a certain job. It’s the behaviours – which are often missed or given less priority during the recruitment process – that are harder to develop.

So what’s the worth of a degree?

When choosing a candidate – employers need all the information they can get. For this reason degrees are useful, we can’t deny that, but they are not the be all and end all. Going to university can provide young people with amazing experiences and knowledge to help them mature and grow as individuals. But where they went and what they studied really does not matter as much as you might think. What matters is the person, the way they’ll behave at work and what they can contribute to the long term success of a business.

The question to ask is are you more interested in what they’ve been studying for the past three years, or what they’re capable of achieving in your business in the next 10…?

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About Tom Quayle

Tom Quayle joined The Chemistry Group in 2010 as a Business Analyst, creating a new product line focused on ‘Behavioural Development’. He has since built his way up over the past five years, consulting large, well known, brands on their people strategies and is now Head of Product within the organisation.

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