25/02/2016 11:02 GMT | Updated 25/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Employers' Changing Mindset Is Good News for Students

Last month Penguin Random House announced that they were dropping requirements for future applicants to hold a university degree. According to the company, the move has been taken in order to open up opportunities and attract a more diverse range of people into the publishing industry, which is often criticised for its lack of diversity.

Cynics might say this is purely a recruitment PR stunt. That might be true were it not for the fact that they are not the first large organisation to have done this. Last year, for example, the accountancy firm Ernst & Young dropped their requirements for candidates to possess 300 UCAS points (equivalent to 3 Bs at A-Level) and a minimum of a 2:1 degree.

Having worked with a talent management firm, they realised that the online strengths and the numerical tests they set their would-be candidates were a far better indication of a person's ability to succeed in a role, rather than their academic performance. PwC and Grant Thornton have also removed the requirements for degrees from their recruitment processes.

Does all this mean that the degree is dead and buried? Absolutely not. But it does mean that employers are thinking differently about education and skills paths. Meaning this is now a good opportunity for students to do the same.

Subjects that require a degree; medicine, teaching, law and architecture for example - require in-depth study into a particular field. However, as employers such as these big name companies become more flexible, many candidates will be able to prove their worth in a variety of different ways.

Degrees now sit alongside on-the-job experience, aptitude and more vocationally-based qualifications that have perhaps been overlooked in the past. This is why a thorough understanding of all the qualifications available is imperative for any budding student with a view on employability, as there are a whole host of combinations that offer flexible routes to any desired destination.

Consider the BTEC - a work-related qualification designed to meet the needs of employers. Many students believe that in order to access a degree course they have to have A Levels. Not so. Most universities accept BTEC Diplomas in lieu of A-Levels. In fact one in four (26%) students accepted onto higher education courses in 2015 held at least one - up from one in seven (14%) in 2008.

For employers, the pairing of what it quite a practical, skills-based qualification with a more theoretical/academic course is an increasingly attractive proposition. CIPD's 2015 Learning to Work survey highlighted that 23% of UK HR professionals do not consider traditional academic performance and formal qualifications as the best indicator of a candidate's suitability for an entry-level (graduate) role. This rises to a staggering 39% in the voluntary sector. HR professionals are increasingly using experience, vocational study, aptitude and personality to assess suitability instead.

The same is true of another qualification, which is all too often overlooked considering its relevance to the modern jobs market - the BTEC HND.

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) are university-level, semi-vocational/semi-professional qualifications that can be studied full or part time (whether 'face to face' or online). HNDs are useful in their own right, but because they are also typically equivalent to two years of a degree course, they offer students the added flexibility to study a 'top up to degree' course should they decide they want to convert to a degree. In fact, because employers recognise the 'practical value', they are often open to sponsoring individuals deciding to take the top-up route.

The 'A-Level-to-degree-to-job' route doesn't suit a great many students. The fact that it now doesn't seem to suit a lot of employers either, presents a valuable opportunity to learners considering other routes to qualification and employment. And it isn't a restricted opportunity.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKES) Employer Skills Survey 2015 highlighted that six percent of employers that had a vacancy, did so because of a practical work skills shortage. Also, according to the Government's Occupation Shortage 2015 List there are 36 sectors with considerable skills shortages, including catering, purchasers and buyers, graphic designers, engineering technicians and paramedics - all of which are open to a wide range of personal attributes, study routes and qualifications.

Some academics out there view changing employer policies on qualifications as a bad thing. I couldn't disagree more. In my view, changing employer attitudes can only be a positive thing for higher education, as it encourages students to think more clearly about the value and relevance of the courses they choose to pursue.

The traditional A-level to degree route, though still followed by the majority of students, is not the definitive passport to a career it once was, giving learners the freedom to concentrate more on education paths that suit their particular style, needs and (in many cases) finances.

As well as boosting employability, I believe this will also see a dramatic decrease in 'drop-out' students i.e. individuals leaving courses because their motivation for starting them was misguided. A study taken over the festive break of 2016 found that nearly 27% of first year students are considering leaving university this year, with many giving the reason that they are unhappy with the course they had chosen.

By no longer basing their view of candidates purely on their qualifications, employers are creating opportunities that will help establish a more diverse, skills-based workforce. This should encourage students to choose a learning and development route that is suitable to their needs and chosen career path, rather than trying to fit into a prescribed mould. It's great news for students, it's great news for business and that is great news for the economy as a whole.