Student choices: Get your degree to be a winner in the work race

Having a good degree is still the best boost you can get for your job prospects now and your salary in future. By Roger Trapp
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The Independent Culture
The findings of the Independent survey that school leavers say fees are putting them off going to university are not altogether surprising, but they are still shocking. Basically, they demonstrate a distinct lack of awareness of the modern world.

As anybody who has paid even scant attention to the repeated commentaries - in newspapers and elsewhere - on the coming of the digital economy will know, this is the age of the "knowledge worker". While there will still be some unskilled jobs, years of downsizing and restructuring have obliterated the need for armies of non-graduate white-collar staff. Moreover, the increasing complexity of life in just about every sphere, combined with the replacement of many administrative tasks by computers, means that degrees have become almost an entry ticket to the world of work.

For the post-war generation, a degree by itself was sufficiently unusual to elicit several job offers; later, qualifications from the more distinguished universities, especially Oxbridge, made the difference. Now, employers have become so blase about degrees that many of them - especially in fields such as law - stipulate that only those job candidates with the best results (upper seconds and above) will be considered.

All this is symptomatic of the fact that, though universities and other centres of higher education are not the only founts of knowledge, they are still the ones with which employers are most familiar. While repeated studies suggest that many recruiters are disappointed by some of the graduates they take on, there is little sign of them changing their habits.

Much is made of how certain highly-successful people - especially entrepreneurs - either did not attend university or dropped out. But these are very much the exceptions that prove the rule. It used to be possible to reach the top of the professions, for instance, without the benefit of a degree; now, though there is the odd senior partner schooled only in the university of life, it is impossible to even gain admittance to the firm without strong academic qualifications.

There is some confusion about whether such roles require graduate skills or whether employers merely fill the positions with graduates because they apply. But in the debate about "McJobs" there is a lot of evidence to suggest that graduates often make effective use of them as stepping stones on the way to other things.

Put simply, universities offer a benchmark of young employees' knowledge. Even though there is a good deal of scepticism about some of the newer universities, and vocational courses that recruiters say would-be students need to be more aware of, employers do assume that entry to well-regarded institutions requires a certain amount of the sort of intelligence that will be required in a fast-moving environment.

Hilary Steedman, programme director at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance, believes there are signs that the skills that universities traditionally provide and the needs of industry have recently moved closer together.

"Many more jobs require people to have good communication skills, with clients or colleagues or both, to be flexible with an ability to deal with the unexpected, and act and work autonomously. These are all skills developed in many university courses," she says.

Even the extra-curricular activities provide the social, personal and organisational skills that employers constantly say they crave. But there is a growing demand for this "soft" side to be combined with a "hard" academic side.

For evidence of this, just look at the City of London. In days of yore, this was a classic career choice for people who went to the right schools and knew the right people but did not necessarily have what it took to go on to university. Now that financial dealings are increasingly impersonal affairs, conducted over computer screens rather than by a handshake in a dark watering hole, the qualifications are much more likely to be a facility with numbers associated with those studying advanced mathematics. Indeed, in such rarefied fields as derivatives, investment banks typically head for the leading universities' science departments with the aim of hiring people with PhDs in physics and engineering.

Nor is this demand limited to the City. Lawyers, of course, have to follow up a degree (which does not have to be in law) with specialist study for either bar or solicitors' exams, while accountants train for the exams set by such bodies as the Institute of Chartered Accountants or the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. In business, the MBA is what one industrialist has termed "the ticket to ride".

In such diverse fields as securities dealing and human resources, those that want to get ahead are realising that, however good their degrees are, they have to supplement them with further degrees or diplomas, or simply trade association accreditations. After all, every year the organisations they are working for will hire another batch of graduates and the only way they can differentiate themselves from the new arrivals is by being better qualified and more valuable.

While the modern graduate has to sign up for continuous learning rather than resting on his or her laurels in the workplace, there is no doubt that a degree helps get a foot in the door.

While the Government is busy trying to work out new ways of dealing with the perennial problem of getting school leavers into work, skills-starved companies are offering all sorts of blandishments in an effort to persuade the best graduates to sign up. Things are not yet as extreme in Britain as in the United States, where companies are reportedly taking their recruitment roadshows to the beach resorts at which students traditionally party during the "spring break". But the research group Incomes Data Services claims that "golden hellos" averaging pounds 1,000 are being offered to supposed high fliers and those with in-demand specialisms.

All the figures suggest that, in purely economic terms, a degree is a worthwhile investment, even for those who have to take out a loan to pay for it. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, before taking account of outside factors, wages for men aged 33 with first degrees had hourly wages 21 per cent higher than those with just A-Levels; for women the news is even better - a first degree gives them wages 39 per cent higher.

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