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  • Writer's picturePeter Hogan

How much is a degree worth?

Is university still worth it? Of course! has to be the default answer for many but times really are changing. As the number and size of universities increase and the list of courses grows longer many major employers are removing the requirement of a degree in what were once called graduate jobs. At a time when more people are studying for more courses, blue-chip employers are saying they value degrees less than ever.

Siemens, Apple, EY, Google, Penguin Random House, Facebook, Costco, Netflix, IBM, Hilton, BBC, Starbucks, Home Depot, Bank of America and Tesla are just some of the big names that now say they no longer see a degree as a prerequisite for what were once jobs that required a degree. Top jobs may not be going to graduates in the future. General Manager, Journalist, Financial Accountant, Investment Analyst, Hotel Manager, Optician, Software Engineer, Senior Web Designer, International Tax Manager and Software Engineer are just some to the high paying roles advertsied where these employers say a degree is no longer required. It seems that more and more businesses are looking for talented candidates regardless of their educational background.

Why is this? Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said “We’ve never really thought that a college degree was the thing that you had to have to do well. We’ve always tried to expand our horizons" and Apple’s founder Steve Jobs was quick to remind the world that he was a college drop-out. Thriving in business without a degree, he was in the company of the founders of Facebook, Uber, Dell, Dropbox, Whatsapp and Twitter. All of whom hire hundreds of thousands around the world and it is no surprise that they are open-minded when it comes to the qualifications of employable and promotable staff.

Added to this questioning of the degree content, some businesses are starting to reconsider just how work-ready some graduates are. In a major survey of employers last year, the qualification body Pearson found businesses feel that nearly a fifth of graduates are not ready for the workplace. In particular, they feel they are missing the crucial skills of leadership, negotiation, strategic thinking and planning. In a separate survey, the UK’s Confederation of British Industry found that 40% of employers are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the wider character, behaviours and attributes of school and college leavers. For their part, many graduates felt university life had not equipped them for the world of work and only one third had seen a careers adviser at university. It seems that universities would benefit from addressing the work-readiness of their students if they are to help their graduates into employment.

Concerned about the quality of young employees, some firms are stepping up and doing something. The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology in the UK is the first of a new wave of alternative education providers to be granted the power to award its own degrees. Students spend their time studying two days a week, serving an engineering apprenticeship for the other three days and contributing to live Dyson projects. They are paid for the work they do and graduate with a B Eng (Hons) without any debts. For some time Google have offered training but their new Career Certificates will allow students to take courses to become trained data analysts, project managers and UX designers in six months. They claim the certificates allow the holders the opportunity to connect directly with top employers and the HR departments of Google will be treating the new certificates as the equivalent degrees. This drift away from the tried and tested route of school, degree, job is echoed by the findings in the recruitment sector. LinkedIn, the employment and networking service with over 400 million members, monitors recruitment around the world and while they do not feel the degree is thing of the past, they are seeing a major shift in what companies are looking for. Now, they say, there is much more emphasis on skills than school.

This news is no portent of the demise of Higher Education. A university degree opens doors, unlocks opportunities, develops skills and the whole experience is a rite of passage to a well-rounded adult life and as a Principal, I would almost always argue that Higher Education is worth the investment. In Bangkok and across world the reputations of schools are built upon the University destinations of alumni. Students going to Oxford, Cambridge , Harvard, Stanford, MIT and others are given special praise and the offers made to students are seen as a mark of success. This is all quite correct and laudable but is only now part of a changing picture. Professions including engineering, medicine, dentistry and related fields, veterinary science and scientific roles will always require specific qualifications whereas for others including finance, law, construction, architecture and technology the route in need not be via a university.

University is not just a means to an end and there is something to be said for being able to leave school and study a subject for the love of it. Literature, creative writing, music, art or mathematics may be a young person’s passion and the freedom to spend time diving deeply into one area can be very rewarding. It might also be a wise career move. There are many instances of school leavers opting to study a degree in the belief this would be good for them only to realize their passion was elsewhere and either dropping out or going through the stress of changing courses. Living and working away from home can be challenging and stressful and the added pressure of studying something you don’t like can be too much for someone who, until this time, has had the support and security of family and school.

To go to university and then dropout can be very damaging and for most who drop out it would have been better not to go at all. Dropping out without having gained a degree is highly likely to have significant consequences in terms of wasted time, money and potential psychological trauma for the individual. A 2017 long term study found that dropouts spent most of the 8 years after leaving university with earnings lower than those who never entered university. It is no surprise, therefore that those who dropout suffer the scarring effect of greater marginalization and negativity in the job market.

In English universities, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, around 26,000 students who began the first year did not finish the year. Meanwhile, in the United States, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is a staggering 40% with approximately 30% of college freshmen dropping out before their sophomore year. No wonder The New York Times refers to this a crisis, going onto claim that the fault not with the young people but with the failure within the institutions. “Students can get lost”, they say, “the old forms of student advising were often stiff and intimidating. Advisers dealt mostly with academic issues, rather than the full range of students’ problems”

It seems that around the world, as more young people go to university, more challenges are emerging and the institutions are not always best placed to give the help and guidance needed. 12% of the students taking part in an international study stated the university experience was worse than they imagined and in the UK 5% of students in a Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report said they wouldn’t enter Higher Education if they had the chance to start over. It seems that student dissatisfaction is rising.

Undergraduate discontent is likely to be linked to the rising cost of getting a degree. 32% of students felt they were not getting value for money at university last year and with the current pandemic, the question of what they are actually buying has been thrown into very sharp relief. With fees unaltered but tuition taking place online and quarantine in some halls of residence, understandable questions are bound to be asked about what students are getting for their money.

There would be few rash enough to argue that, in general, going to university isn’t worth it. Even if a young person does not have a particular job in mind, then the averages suggest a degree is a bright idea. Data from across the world shows a non-graduate median salary of just over half that of somone with a four-year college degree. Of course, there are costs in terms of time, money, stress and pressure but many rewards other than money to enjoy on the journey to a graduation ceremony. Things are changing and are unlikely to change back again. More options are opening up and even if parents dream of seeing their child graduate, not every employer wants or needs to see a degree certificate. Now, more than ever, whoever is turned to for advice needs to be on top of their game.

Peter Hogan


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