09/05/2014

By Tom Hughes, Journalist

As a country we are more educated than ever. The government has more or less made good on Labour’s promise that half of all school leavers should go to university. It’s an educational embarrassment of riches, on the face of it.
But that’s only half the story, of course. And if you are putting together a crack team for your business, you may well not agree.

Show me a jobseeker with a shiny degree certificate, and I’ll show you a would-be worker who was funnelled down an academic path — when potentially an apprenticeship, or training while in employment, would have been a better option.

Dr Superfluous..?

At least, that’s the view of none other than Vince Cable. The business secretary believes many professions are being blighted by ‘qualification inflation’ — an unnatural and unnecessary raising of the academic bar which sees a degree becoming the standard entry requirement for many jobs. This in turn leaves many graduates — young people who have spent years and thousands of pounds investing in their future — in relatively low-paid jobs for which they are over-qualified.

For professions as diverse as accountancy and nursing, a degree is ‘superfluous’, according to the business secretary. He wants the government to charm some professional associations into allowing school leavers to enter without going to university. Other commentators have gone further, saying simply that too many young people study useless degrees — and that ultimately, many of these qualifications are worthless to employers.

Playground politics

But we may have bigger problems than that. Apparently we are getting it all wrong at the start of the educational journey. Recent months have seen a suggestion that our children start school far too early — and if we’re fundamentally erring at the first day of a child’s school life, it doesn’t bode well for higher education. Despite UK children starting formal education at four or five — versus age seven in countries like Sweden — ours ultimately lag behind academically and in child welfare, compared to the Scandinavian approach.

Extra time devoted to play — and therefore to learning general problem solving skills — could be at the root of it. Another way our education approach could be out of step with more progressive systems is at the other end of the school career. The International Baccalaureate is said by advocates at the minority of UK schools which offer the programme, to better prepare pupils for university and beyond, as it provides a more rounded, character-forming education.

Business backlash

Most employers accept that devoting time to training and developing their employees is a good thing — that keeping them up to date and demonstrating that you are investing in their future is good for all. You can help shape your workforce once they are through the door, but what of the seeming stranglehold university education has on the route to the working world for many young people? Wherever you search for your employees, will they be fixated by that degree certificate — or be willing to learn from scratch?

Well, there’s already a backlash from the upper reaches of the business world. Some of the country’s biggest companies are heading off degrees by attracting bright school leavers directly into their recruitment programmes. It almost sounds like a traditional route into a career, where inexperienced workers learn all they need to on the job, and master the skills in their sector — with no degree in sight.

Given the suggestion that managers find people with apprenticeships more employable than those with other qualifications — and that apprenticeships are ideally a ‘first choice’ approach for young people unwilling to be saddled with tuition fee debt — it could be that the wheel is slowly turning full circle.