Smart Moves: The search for a degree of success

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The Independent Online
What's the worth of a university degree? Nearly a third of graduates are unhappy about their careers 18 months after leaving university and most are stuck in "McGrad" jobs, according to a new study.

The satisfied ones are often those with degrees in engineering and technology, business studies, maths and computing, according to research by the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick University.

If such a large proportion of graduates can't find suitably interesting and challenging jobs, is it worth getting a university place, except to enjoy one's time there? Or is a good degree now a prerequisite, an entrance ticket to a promising job in management, the professions, administration, or the public sector?

Gerry Robinson, the Granada chairman, Habitat founder Sir Terence Conran, Lord McLaurin, the former Tesco chairman, and Michael Green of Carlton didn't do badly without university educations. On the other hand, could Archie Norman have rebuilt Asda if he hadn't had the benefit of a Cambridge and Harvard education? Could Terry Leahy, at 42 the chief executive of Tesco, have made it if he hadn't spent three years at Umist studying economics, marketing and psychology?

The City still has many high-powered brokers, bankers and dealers who manage to hoist themselves through sheer ability without a university background, but their number is decreasing. Many traders have no academic background, although a degree in maths is becoming necessary. Among the estimated 50 per cent of the working population who will be self-employed in the early years of the new millennium, many will be self-made rather than university educated. To make real headway in industry or the City, however, requires a degree or a professional qualification, ideally both.

There are two different types of business leaders today, according to Umist's Professor Gary Cooper: the education entrepreneur who went to a good university, had the right connections and now heads a knowledge- based company requiring higher education expertise; and the intrapreneur, highly educated in engineering, science and management, and applying significant skills to an already successful knowledge-driven business, leading it to further success.

"We have a new generation of business leaders who are educated but also able to think in terms of continuous learning," says Prof Cooper. "Twenty to 30 years ago, it didn't require much formal education to reach senior positions. The drive of less-formally educated managers is still needed, but we are training the managers of the future, giving them not just the skills to do the job but an attitude of mind which says you have to continue to learn."

When Margaret Beckett, the former trade and industry secretary, recently visited Umist to mark its 175th anniversary, and spoke warmly of her formative years there as a student. She was strongly in favour of its science and engineering base and the value of interaction and partnership between industry and the academic world.

The point about Umist, which has just won a Queen's Award for Export for research, teaching and technology transfer, is that people, partnership and products are the areas which have generated real benefits over the years. "We in Government are taking our lead from you and others like you who practise this approach successfully every day," Ms Beckett said.

With employers placing increasing emphasis on graduate skills and competencies rather than pure academic attainment, universities like Umist should benefit. Yet, as more universities and business schools produce more competent graduates, what deeper qualifications will companies look for, especially where graduates offer similar degrees and early experience with a "blue chip" concern?

"Interviewing graduate applicants is going to be about establishing the real qualities beyond the immediate academic and business background," says Andrew Garner, chairman of Garner International, an executive search firm. "It's not even going to be about the pedigree of companies already worked for, however impressive.

"It's going to be about the candidate's rapidity of promotion in his or her current company, what he or she has been through, what they've influenced, the risks they've taken and whether these paid off. It's going to be about what opportunities they see for the company they want to join and what they would do to change things."