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Are employers demanding more than just a 2:1? Ruby Cardona investigates.

Is it still a guarantee that your degree will put you in the best position for finding a job post graduation?

A generation ago many of our parents began careers without even attending university. Today, a degree level qualification is expected of young people applying to most of the key employment sectors – and not only are employers looking for students with prior experience in their chosen field, but increasingly they are after students with ‘employability’ skills.

There are more students enrolled at university than ever – nearly twice the number of full time students attend today than in the mid 1990s. According to Universities UK, 2016 saw the highest numbers of students ever enrolled at university in the UK – 1.75 million undergraduates. This trend shows no sign of slowing across the UK or at Bristol – the university’s £300 million development on the site at Temple Meads is set to attract 5,000 more students for the 2021/22 academic year.

With so many more students attending university and their grades increasing, what is there to distinguish between all of these well qualified graduates? According to the Telegraph, 66% of students are awarded a 2:1 or above – up 5% since 2007 – a proportion which is expected to increase even more over the coming years. Part of this is that the student body is larger today, but it might also be the case that ‘grade inflation’ is occurring where the abundance of second and first-class degrees is decreasing their worth.

The employers’ answer to this has been a refocusing of what they demand from candidates. There is now demand for ‘employability skills’ such as experience with interview techniques. The focus is also shifting to ‘strength based’ recruitment – in plain English that is personality based: employers want people who are confident and outgoing to ensure they will work well socially within the company. Being ‘workplace ready’ is becoming more desirable: task management, listening skills and having confidence in meetings

Of course, personality based recruitment could benefit Widening Participation students (first generation at university) and those from poorer backgrounds. The average student going to a personality-based interview could no better prepare than a fellow student from a public school background. Could this help level the playing field?

But do all employers demand a degree? In 2016, Penguin Random House dropped the requirement for candidates to have a university education so they could widen the diversity of students they attract. Neil Morrison, a human resources manager for the company, said that there was no direct link between a degree qualification and career success in later life.

Penguin were following in the footsteps of Ernst & Young – a major accountancy firm and one of the largest employers of graduates – which made both degree and A- Level qualifications unessential for applicants. PwC – a major international firm which employs up to 500 people in Bristol – also dropped their consideration of A-Level results last year because ‘it unfairly benefits public school students’ and means that they could ‘miss out on key talent from disadvantaged backgrounds’.

For a company as prestigious as the BBC, a carefully designed selection process is used to chose ideal candidates. They are also keen for a candidate to have experience – when applying there is an option to showcase examples of previous work. Placements and internships are also crucial – with companies like this, experience counts for a lot.

For some sectors, experience is everything: the police and fire service need candidates who can pass their challenging physical tests and learn the skills essential to the job – no degree required.

To certain employers, work experience will be just as important as a degree qualification. Research done by the University of East London showed that 32% of graduate students working at the top 100 employers in the country will have already worked for the employer as an intern or on a placement.

With the UK having the highest tuition fees in the world according to the Guardian, these changes in the employment landscape could mean that many turn away from the expensive investment in a university education if there is hope of employment without it.

Still, most large employers will want a degree. Talking to Deloitte LLP – a large accountancy firm – which employs between 250-500 people in Bristol – they said that all of their graduate training programmes require a degree. Although the subject is not important, a First is the preferred qualification. For other high-paying jobs such as banking at a major firm or practicing law, degrees are absolutely essential.

Yet it seems that for now getting a degree still makes financial sense – on average female graduates earn £250,000 more over their working lifetimes than non-graduates and male graduates will earn £165,000 more according to Universities UK.

There is also value to a degree beyond the purely academic accomplishment which employers take into account. At the end of a degree, students have spent three years balancing deadlines, course work, extracurricular activities, possibly a job or internship, a social life…and so on. The amount of opportunities presented to students during their degree – whether it is sports teams, drama productions, dance shows – is probably unequal to any other point in their lifetime.

Not to mention the other skills you develop whilst managing these new responsibilities: prioritisation, organisation, independence to name a few. These are skills that develop throughout the degree experience – they cannot just be taught.

Luckily Bristol has a high rate for postgraduates finding jobs, but according to Universities UK some 10% of graduates struggled to find a job within the six months after they left university in 2015. And for those who fail to find a job in their first year as a postgraduate – albeit a small amount – they are faced with another 40,000 or so entering the job market next time September rolls around.

Is too much being asked of students? More than ever we are being asked to have experience in our chosen fields; to fit internships and placements around already demanding degree schedules. And at the end of a course, there is no certainty that the hard work will be transferred into employment. Competition between graduates for job places will not slow any time soon – we will have to do more and more to stand out.


Have you struggled to get a graduate job? Let us know in the comments or via social media links below. 

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