The Reality and Relevance of a University Degree

10/11/2015 12:19 GMT | Updated 09/11/2016 10:12 GMT

When it comes to university, there are two opposite lines of thinking. The first is that a university education is highly overrated - some people would advise you not to bother. Instead, just follow your own passion. This view is expressed seriously by very senior and successful people.

The second view is that unless you get into one of the top universities, you have a serious hurdle to overcome for your future career. Top universities are typically defined as institutions with the highest prestige in research and which select the most academically gifted students (usually defined by A-level scores). Many companies are quite open in telling people they will only recruit from top universities.

Both of these views are equally convincing - and equally misleading.

First view: no need for university

The first one assumes that because people are sometimes successful in business without any formal qualification, pursuing educational qualifications is not worth the time, effort, and cost. Taken to the extreme, the same logic would apply to buying a lottery ticket as a way to get rich fast: there is nothing wrong with trying your luck, but a lottery ticket is not a smart idea as a career plan.

Starting your own business or entering a company at a low level certainly can work as a good alternative to study, but only when you have the confidence, entrepreneurial talent, stamina, and sufficient realism to accept the possibility of failure.

The reason why this argument against university study does not hold is because for every success story, there are many, many more failures. Getting a university degree first tends to be a much less risky strategy. You might still launch a company later on - but unless you are passionate about your entrepreneurial venture and a real risk-taker, a degree is a more sensible investment.

Second view: university is vital for success

The second argument (only graduates of top universities are taken seriously by employers) is incorrect. Student selection for top universities is primarily based on academic talent, but there is no proven correlation between being academically gifted and success in your career (unless that career is in academia).

Of course, it is helpful to have a degree from a highly regarded university, as it gives you self-confidence and access to alumni networks. Most employers do tend to value them as an element in the selection process - though, interestingly, employers are now beginning to shy away from using A level results and university pedigree as their main criteria.

Increasingly, the more sophisticated selection of employees focuses much more on personal aptitude - like interpersonal skills, team working ability, and intercultural sensitivity, as well as professional competence. For most employers, being academically gifted is no longer at the top of their selection criteria.

A third way

Do not get me wrong: I sincerely wish well for those who launch their company rather than go to university, or those who manage to get into one of the institutions with a prestigious name.

But when it comes to careers, these are only two routes, and neither come with guaranteed success. The main road is still professionally focused study.

In my own institution, I push strongly for education that focuses on careers, so I am keen to see that my students have plenty of professional development opportunities in addition to preparing for exams. In my view, a degree alone is never enough when it comes to a successful career; education should offer more.

Crucially, one should neither underrate nor overrate educational certificates, as investment in one's education does tend to pay off. Exactly how much it will pay off is up to the individual - and of course a healthy dose of luck. But since nobody can rely on luck, a degree is a sensible action plan - but it doesn't have to be at an institution with the highest rating for academic research.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF)