Leading employers prefer value work experience among graduates over grades, says new research

Exclusive: Applicants’ voluntary work and sport impress employers more than 'outmoded' grades

Leading employers value work experience among graduates more than the grades or the university they have been to, according to new research. Figures show that 58 per cent of employers rated work experience as “the most popular qualification among those presented” – with a student’s personality coming second, with 48 per cent favouring this.

Only 15 per cent said that they were looking for a degree from a specific university – such as the US Ivy League or the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the most selective universities in the UK – while 16 per cent said that grades from a prestigious university were important.

The findings come at a time when many universities are expressing concern over the current honours degree system. They say that its classes of degree, firsts, 2:1s, 2:2s, are an anachronism in the modern world, and tell employers little about the individual student.

The former University of Leicester vice-chancellor Professor Sir Bob Burgess has been one of the leading campaigners for reform. He argues that students should have a portfolio that registers their achievements in a range of activities, including participation in societies, voluntary work and sporting achievement as well as academic prowess.

In a report ordered by the Government published last week, he argued for a new 13-point system outlining students’ achievements in a wider range of activities.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK – the body that represents vice-chancellors – admitted the present system was “a blunt instrument”. She added, “the aim [of the new proposal] is to provide a more detailed account of what a student has actually achieved during their studies, rather than just a one-off degree classification.”

The survey of employers is included in a report by Universum – a “global leader in employment branding” which specialises in recruitment. It indicates that Ivy League and Russell Group graduates would still have an edge when it comes to seeking employment as a result of employers’ declared priorities.

Students from other universities, it argues, are much less likely to have internship experience. Survey figures show that 44 per cent of Russell Group students take part in internship programmes in the UK and 20 per cent abroad. The figures for Ivy League universities are 59 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. The numbers for other universities were down by one third in the States and 30 per cent among non-Russell Group students.

However, the survey adds: “We expect this difference may close over time as more and more universities incorporate work and internship programmes into their curriculums to help their students gain real-world, relevant experience in their chosen careers.” The report reveals that students from the Ivy League and Russell Group universities are likely to be more ambitious. They are 21 per cent more likely to say that they want challenging work, while students from elsewhere are 40 per cent more likely to aim for secure employment prospects.

A word of caution, though, is offered to employers: most students are seeking some kind of work-life balance, so that they can have a life beyond their employment. “Few (just 10 per cent) defined ‘challenging work’ as having a constant and heavy workload,” it added.

Figures showed that both Russell Group/Ivy League students (56 per cent) and those at other universities (58 per cent) gave top priority to work-life balance. Second in priority for students from elite universities was “to be competitively or intellectually challenged”, with 53 per cent giving it a priority. For those at other universities, second place was “to be secure and stable in my job” – which was cited by 51 per cent.