Does a degree guarantee you a good job?

With the time and money it takes to get a degree these days you can’t always be sure it’s still the best path to professional success.

Did degrees used to have more clout?

University degrees date back to the late 12th century although until about 100 years ago they were exclusively linked to the church. At the beginning of the 20th century, they became more readily available, but even in the early Sixties only 6 per cent of under-21s went to university. Today, the figure stands closer to 43 per cent. With 262,375 first degrees handed out last year alone, the crèmede- la-crème of graduate jobs are consequently harder to come by. However, the increase in graduates also means fewer employers are willing to look at applicants without a degree.

Do more people get better grades now?

Yes. 13 per cent receive the highest grade possible – nearly twice as many as a decade ago. Cynics say the boom in firsts is fuelling fears that the university honours system as been devalued by “grade inflation”. Others say that a rise in firsts should be seen as a good thing – a sign that universities are doing their job well. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) says the rise isn’t steep though – it’s up just 1 per cent on 2006, with 36,645 firsts awarded last year.

What are the longer-term prospects for graduates?

Analysis of data from a HESA longitudinal survey of leavers from higher education institutions reveals that three years after they were first surveyed, the percentage of graduates in full-time paid employment had reached 74 per cent (up from 57 per cent when first surveyed). The level of unemployment during the same period had also dropped from 5 to 2 per cent. Overall, 80 per cent of employed graduates were reported as working in jobs classified as graduate occupations.

Which graduates have the best chances of getting a job?

Students who spend a year working in industry during their degree course have the edge when it comes to getting a job, according to research by Aston Business School in Birmingham. But fear not if your degree doesn’t include this opportunity. Most degrees offer some kind of work placement and there are plenty of openings for work experience which you can arrange independently.

What jobs are graduates going after?

It depends on personal preference of course, but a place on a traditional graduate training scheme with a FTSE 100 company would be high on a lot of students’ wish lists. However, Elspeth Farrar, director of Imperial College Careers Advisory Service, points out that they count for just 20 per cent of graduate employment. “Many of the rest go into smaller companies and often into jobs with a less structured entry point and career path,” she says. “But if you talk to these graduates, they often say they are using the skills they gained in higher education, so you could argue that these jobs have developed to become graduate jobs.”

Experts have their say

Opinion is divided when it comes to the benefit of getting a degree. We have asked a number of experts and students what they think about it.

The YES camp

Chris Phillips, UK and Ireland publishing director for the graduate jobsite

There’s plenty of evidence to show that graduates earn significantly more than non graduates over the course of their careers, but with nearly half of 20-year-olds in higher education, it’s clear that graduates aren’t quite the elite they once were. This means the choice of degree subject and the university are much more important now if students want a decent graduate job. Choose a degree programme that will develop employability skills as well as giving you subject knowledge and choose a university that has a good reputation with employers. The right choice of degree and university greatly improves your job chances.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive, Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR)

Securing a job is influenced by a number of factors, including the individual and the status of the market, but a degree certainly provides a stepping stone to a successful career, providing the graduate can demonstrate how the learning experience has developed their skills and prepared them for the workplace. Recruiters recognise the extra value that a graduate brings to an organisation, such as motivation and commitment, time management, intellectual acumen, flexibility and of course, future potential. In addition to academic success, it is important graduates use their time at university productively, making the most of the extra-curricular opportunities available, in order to stand out from the competition and secure their perfect job.

Peter Rankin, head and principal adviser, University of Central Lancashire careers service

According to the Student Experience Report 2007, 94 per cent of over 1,600 students surveyed reported that “going to university is a worthwhile investment”. Research has shown that three years after graduation, four out of five graduates were in graduate jobs. Obtaining a good degree is not enough, however – students must add value to it. Employers demand skills and often work experience as well. Meanwhile, developing enterprise and people skills, as well as specialist skills, is crucial. Universities are working hard to ensure that students are equipped with these.

Recent graduate Georgina Hunter, senior account manager at Pareto Law

Having a degree puts you one step ahead of the game, helping to create opportunities that may not otherwise have been available to you. Just weeks after graduating from UCL with a 2.1 in psychology, I secured a position with Pareto Law. After four months I progressed from trainee to account manager and a year later was promoted to senior account manager, where I now work to develop existing relationships, generate business and manage recruitment. The skills acquired during my time at university are invaluable in my work. Not only has my degree given me the confidence and independence to progress professionally, but my background in psychology helps enormously when it comes to understanding the requirements of clients.

The NO camp

Professor James Knowles, dean of the Graduate School at Keele University

You may be studying some esoteric subject at undergraduate degree level – and so much the better if that’s the thing that excites you – but it’s the underlying skills you develop rather than subject knowledge that will provide an edge in today’s international, competitive employment market. The fact is, a straight degree might not be enough on its own. However, research-based degrees, such as Masters and doctorates, require the ability to define, plan and execute projects. They require motivation, independent thinking, self-assessment, target setting, energy and focus to finish complex and difficult tasks that employers value. Once explained to your would-be employer, your skill set from a research-based degree will be very persuasive.

Andy Powell, CEO of Edge, an educational foundation dedicated to raising the profile of vocational and practical learning

Far too often, academic achievement is seen as the only route to securing a good job; the truth is that there is a wide variety of routes to great careers. From mechanical engineering to design, many careers can be entered via apprenticeships, qualifications from further education colleges or good training schemes in the workplace. Sadly, most young people in the UK aren’t exposed to these other routes. There is parental or other pressure to go down the university route without thinking about what the young person actually wants to do. At Edge, we believe that all routes to career success should be considered.

Mark Picken, managing director of mpad, a marketing, public relations, advertising and design agency

When it came to taking exams I suffered from nerves and struggled, so being offered an unconditional place on an HND advertising course when I finished A-levels turned out to be really good for me. With lecturers who had years of experience in the industry, the course was run like an agency. Sometimes you’d be given a brief in the morning and expected to pitch in the afternoon. I believe the experience has served me really well for my career – rather than grappling with academia, it gave me an understanding of deadlines, client demands, tight writing and creativity.

Jessica Stratton, unemployed recent graduate

I graduated last summer with a 2.1 in media studies and public relations from the University of Westminster. Initially, I applied for jobs below my qualifications because I needed cash – I was told I was overqualified. In November, I decided to apply for more appropriate jobs, mostly online in PR and advertising. I got nothing. I was forced to opt for a job in media sales, which I hated, so I left. I’ve since had more interviews for jobs I’d really like, which I got turned down for. I thought it would be so much easier to get work as a graduate.