THE BLOG

Degrees - Are They Really Worth It?

19/08/2015 23:37 BST | Updated 19/08/2016 10:59 BST

I read with interest today this report from the CIPD which tells us that a huge number of UK graduates are now working at non-graduate levels. "Under-employed" as one commentator defined it. "Under utilised", according to another and "wasted degrees" according to a third.

Half of our young people choose to go to university and they spend three years grafting, in order to leave with their sought-after qualification of choice (and let's be honest, some good memories and some new mates too). But let's remember, in addition to their new qualification they also leave with student debts of around £44,000 on average too. With the sacrifice, time and cash invested, you'd expect them to have access to the 'higher-skilled jobs' that companies have to offer too, right?

Wrong. It turns out that the UK has seen the biggest rates of higher education expansion across Europe in recent decades. Which would have been fine, except this expansion has not been met with an increase in the number of high-skilled jobs available. Put simply then, we have way more graduates than the job economy currently needs. To be precise 58.8% of grads are currently working in non-graduate roles. Yep, you read that right... 58.8%.

After being involved in recruitment for over five years (I'm part of a nationwide annual employment roadshow, I run an IT/Digital recruitment business and mentor unemployed people) I see countless graduates trying for jobs, only to come across the 'no experience = no job offer' response, even though 'no job offer = no experience' it's a cycle and for some, it's a never ending one. What then happens is many grads end up working for free for months and months, or they have to start a few rungs further down they ladder than they had ever expected too.

Employers for their part, are met with a shed load of applicants with degrees and so increase their minimum qualification requirement to a degree, mainly just to help the filtering process. What we are left with, is a ton of jobs which would never have needed a degree, suddenly requiring one. Has the skill requirement for the job increased? No. It also prompts the question of whether while a grad needs a degree to get the job, does he actually need the skills he learnt acquiring that degree for the job. The answer, is often no. But yet sadly, those people with the skills needed, although gained through a different route, could potentially be overlooked

If we don't get a grip of this situation, it will likely get worse and worse. More and more young people will go to uni, because they believe it to be for the best, and yet actually will find their initial career and financial prospects reduced in some cases.

So what's the answer then I hear you ask?

We'll firstly, there needs to be a reconnect between higher education and the jobs economy. We need to make sure that people moving into higher education will actually be exiting the system with qualifications which are relevant and aligned with the jobs that businesses and the like are creating. I'd even extend it further and say that schools etc too need to reshape their curriculum to make sure people are leaving with proper, relevant skills which will help them in the workplace.

There crucially also needs to be a stronger drive towards vocational training such as apprenticeships. To me, they are the best way for a company to attract and nurture talent. I started out in business on a 'YTS' (an apprenticeship scheme) and it was the very best thing I did. Yes, I started at the bottom but I earnt a wage on day one, I was in a real business environment gaining my skills, and my confidence soared. I made contacts and gained qualifications at the same time and better yet, I had zero student debt at the end. That apprenticeship gave me a foundation on which to grow. The finances worked out for me too because by the age of 22, I was earning my first six-figure salary, many multiples of what my uni friends were earning.

Thirdly, there must be better advice given to young people about their options and prospects. While I believe degrees have a place and are an achievement (for example, I'm not going to let a brain surgeon operate on me if they don't have the relevant study and qualifications) I believe they are wrongly undertaken by too many people. The best way to learn something is often to just get in and do it. Not everything is so complicated that in needs a degree in order to understand it.

I hope this report from the CIPD makes the relevant people listen and consider change. I hope if you run a business you will seriously consider expanding your apprenticeship programme and more importantly, I hope if you know a young person considering their options, that you advise them to consider their options carefully. University has a place but right now, in my opinion, that place needs to be redefined...