The era of graduates from the university conveyor belt is over

A good degree is only a small chunk of the global skill set that big employers are looking for these days

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The Independent Online

How do we train people for the jobs of the future when we don’t know what those jobs will be? And how does an employer pick people when it is not clear that what they have been taught is relevant to the job in hand? The first is a general conundrum that faces all educators, for though education is about more than preparing young people for the workplace, that is nevertheless a pretty important part of it. And the second is an immediate question facing employers, and one to which the answer seems to be shifting in a fascinating way.

This week it emerged that EY, the global professional services firm, is to drop degree classification and A-level grades from its entry-criteria when hiring. It had found that there was no evidence to link academic prowess and success in the professional field. Instead it would assess candidates using its own numerical and “strength” online tests, with the aim of creating a more level playing field for job applicants.

This fits in with a change in policy of a number of other employers. For example Clifford Chance, the legal firm, has a “CV blind” policy on recruitment, so that interviewers are not given information on the schools and universities that candidates attended. Other firms are starting schemes to attract non-university entrants. It is a far cry from the policy of looking only at firsts from Russell Group universities that financial firms once used as a short-cut – though one they rarely admitted to.

So why the change? There are at least five forces at work. One is a genuine desire to create a level playing field, recognising that young people who fail to get over one of the many examination hurdles placed in front of them at a very early age – for reasons including family background – should still be given a clear shot at success later on.

A second is that, at least for large companies, the job market is a global one. For these companies the education system of any one country might not provide them with all the skills they need, and while they recruit locally, they also have to think of global requirements. Then there is the growing realisation that you need a range of skills, some narrow, some broad. While “soft skills” are harder to assess and define, they may be more important to the future of the enterprise.

And while from a university-leaver’s perspective it is immensely challenging to get into a top-ranked company, from the point of view of the employer it is immensely challenging to attract top talent. Paying people well is not enough: you have to have a reputation for being an ethical employer. Spreading the entry criteria to create a level playing field reinforces the perception of ethical behaviour.

Finally, as job mobility increases, every employer knows the people they chose at entry-level will not stay the course. Many will leave to work for competitors at some stage in their career, but more and more now set up their own enterprises instead. You are trying to build not just your own team, but to create an alumni group with whom you will do business in the future.

Seen in this context of an increasingly fluid and global workforce the EY shift makes a huge amount of sense. The four huge professional services firms (the others being Deloitte, PwC and KPMG) are at the epicentre of this global skills market, so the wider they can cast their net the better. Ultimately all they have is brains: the intellectual property of the people who work for them. So they need the widest range of skills, which crucially include personal networks, for them to survive and grow.

A good degree from a decent UK university may still be a starting point, but that is one small chunk of the global skill set they have to attract and retain.

What, then, are the implications for universities? If you see them principally as degree factories, then any downgrading of the degree as a job qualification would seem a downgrading of their significance also. But that is surely far too narrow a view.

Yes, a reputation for getting people into good jobs helps in the recruitment of students, and there are endless league tables of how well different universities do on this count. But the less we know about the jobs of the future, the wider the set of skills students will need to have.

Quite a lot of us think the present emphasis on science, rather than the humanities, is misguided. We need specialist knowledge and it is a great national asset that so many UK universities are in the top 100 in the world. But we also need general knowledge, for generalists may well be more adaptable for the jobs that do not exist at the moment and which we cannot even envisage.

I think the big point here is that we are still in the early stages of the communications revolution: access to knowledge has widened to an extent unthinkable even ten years ago. There is a debate about the date of the first MOOC – massive open online course, a curriculum free to study by anyone, anywhere – but the acronym came into general use only around 2008. MOOCs are now run by many of the great universities of the world and, in theory at least, give universal access to university-level courses at no cost at all. The MOOC revolution may be peaking, or alternatively it may have hardly begun – we cannot know – but either way it is helping change higher education from being supply-driven to demand-led.

Knowledge is available to anyone able and diligent enough to access it. But you do need the basic ability and you do need the diligence. So the challenge for a company such as EY is how to cast your net to catch as many people as you can with those basic abilities and that diligence, rather than just have those people who have travelled along the conveyor-belt of a conventionally excellent education system. But what an exciting challenge that is.