Draft of article Published in AGR Conference Magazine July 2012, on behalf of GRB
Working hard, playing hard but aiming high: the 2:1 degree class is traditionally and academically viewed as the mark of a capable, high-achieving student. However, recent online statistics gathered by the Graduate Recruitment Bureau in March 2012 suggest students are now pushing beyond this with only 14% believing a 2:1 degree class or above would sufficiently differentiate their skills from the masses.
Of over 450 respondents it is clear the majority of these students are broadening their outlook regardless of how prestigiously a university might sit in a league table. This raises questions as to whether these trends are happening because employers are increasingly looking for skill-sets beyond a degree, or because applicants simply think they are.
Either way, surely it cannot be a bad thing to encourage students to beef up their CV with some extra-curricular or work experience roles? Won’t it merely breed a fresh generation of even higher-calibre students? Perhaps offset a few of those disgruntled “kids of today” mutterings?
Or does it instead begin to devalue the worth of a traditionally wholesome degree? Potentially raise standards of competition in the jobs market unreasonably high and risk disadvantaging those who genuinely need every minute of their time at university to thrive academically? If employer expectations of a graduate’s three short years as an undergraduate rise beyond realism, those who might once have excelled in their studies could sacrifice their grades for the misconception that experience will provide them a “get out of jail free card” for substandard results.
Of course these are all extreme scenarios and we should let statistics speak for themselves. The Higher Education Statistic Agency confirms that in 2012, ‘almost one in six undergraduates at UK universities achieved a first (15.5%)’, a significant raise from the 2006 ‘one in eight (12.6%). This could equally be due to better teaching standards rather than increased motivation to shine through on the job market, but regardless of either, it is creating a natural decline in the ability to differentiate candidates based on academia. Their full set of results can be viewed in the accompanying chart.
Is a relevant degree important? In terms of a relevant degree subject at a top university, only 4% (19) and 8% (37) of the GRB respondents felt this was enough to put them at an advantage. The significance of these figures is likely to depend upon the prestige and reputation of the university and course in question. For Oxbridge, this emanates historically and internationally, whereas many such as Loughborough University specialise with national recognition in sports or similar. However, this is a relatively small percentage in respect to the 166 universities in the UK, now averaging 14,940 students per university. The sheer mass of university attendees could therefore be deterring students from having faith in their degree alone.
So how DO you stand out? In stark contrast to the previous statistics, a staggering 45% (208 respondents) felt that an internship or work experience would enhance their employability in the jobs market. In some industries such as Business Studies, Law and Media this is a clear stepping stone, necessary and insightful for a graduate’s own benefit as much as their future employers. Sandwich degree courses at universities are increasing in prevalence and variety, causing these applicants to be shifted to the top of the pile.
This leaves those without this option to reconsider the assets they will have to compete with after graduation, and arguably positions them perfectly to display a proactive and driven attitude towards their career by gaining the same experience independently. Gaining it this way can be gruelling and demoralising but intuition and perseverance are highly desirable skills in the workplace; a scattering of buzz words is meaningless without the evidence to prove it.
However, despite the various merits which extra-curricular or part-time work contribute, only 1% of respondents (5 students) selected it as a means to achieve adequate status. Although these may not always have direct relevance to career-building, without these a graduate may overdo the “all work no play” impression. Employers are of course seeking a hard-working, conscientious employee but also somebody human, with a rounded character and these necessary people skills are often naturally acquired through social clubs and interests.
Is it really who you know? We are then back to that age old question, is it what you know or who? 16% (75) GRB respondents ranked personal contacts highly in gaining graduate jobs. This was the second highest statistic and again devalues a degree’s worth in working your way up the career ladder; networking instead comes to the forefront, especially for in-house or managerial roles.
Another 12% (56) respondents voted for ‘ambition and drive’. Interestingly this could encompass anything from a high degree classification, actively seeking experience in their desired field, individual projects or networking with industry professionals or simply be the force behind gaining these. So whilst various achievements might look good on paper, a candidate’s persona at an interview is more than likely to shine these traits through to an employer. Without the drive to succeed can a candidate really reach their full potential?
So what are we left with? It is clear that living in such competitive times with the added pressure of media hype, graduates are pushing further and further beyond a substantial degree class to showcase their level of commitment to employers. The long-term effects of this new work experience boom may even have potential to reallocate prestige across universities as tuition fees take effect and those with more a hands-on approach deliver students with more appropriate skill-sets for the contemporary job market. As universities begin to adapt, there is huge potential for them to capitalise on this, but more importantly a need to stay on top of the fast-moving trends to sustain faith in their employment value.
Whilst academia should not be written off by any means, experience opens doors to networking and proves candidate attributes rather than just declaring them; this in turn displays that all important ambitious streak which will ultimately put them ahead of the game… What do you think?