Is Higher Education Really the Most Valuable Option?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 10th November 2016

In recent times, the growing disillusionment of young graduates concerning the cost and value of getting a degree has become more apparent. I’m not at all surprised. But perhaps this represents a watershed moment; the first signs that higher education is losing its stranglehold over the development and futures of our most capable young people.

The value of higher education

Research published by Aviva this summer showed that 37% of more than 1,000 graduates interviewed said that they regretted going to university.

Similarly, 52% of a group of 2,000 interviewed in another survey by Future Finance were unsure that the financial and career advantages of a degree would ultimately make them better off.

If current, former, and potential students themselves throw so much doubt upon the value of getting a degree, then why are so many parents, teachers, and career advisors still obsessed with encouraging young people to seek a place at a university?

The government, of course, has been alive to the challenge for some time, and has made some quite brave, significant, and strategic decisions to encourage young people (and others too) into apprenticeships as a viable alternative to higher education. In fact, some universities, such as the University of Birmingham, are even embracing the power of apprenticeships themselves.

Now, if we can just achieve ‘parity of esteem’, where apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are viewed as every bit as valuable as a degree. Indeed, they often say much more about useful, applicable skills and hard work, and better represent today’s thriving industries. This is not to say that a university education is not a valuable asset to many people, but to emphasise that is it not for everyone.

Education and talent in today’s organisations

Shifting attitudes towards education is one of many symptoms of a changing society that is slowly aligning itself to a new world that is more diverse, more egalitarian, and less convinced by old assumptions. These same drivers that are causing many to rethink their attitudes to education are also changing the workplace, and therefore the paradigm in which leaders operate.

People of my baby-boomer generation, and those born in the Generation X that followed, were conditioned to believe that clever people got A-levels and went to university, while the less capable left school to learn a trade or work in semi-skilled occupations, often in the service sector.

The majority of our senior leader cohort are over 50 and therefore, like me, a product of this thinking. As a consequence, the basic underlying assumption that a university education is mandatory for a successful management career prevails in a large proportion of our organisations. If you take a look at a few adverts for management and management trainee roles, you’ll often find the word ‘graduate’ as a prefix or pre-requisite. I suspect some of this is also a result of ‘lazy thinking’ among recruiters, enabling them to shortlist candidates quickly.

We need to consider how narrow a section of society has traditionally been catered for by higher education in the first place. While it has undoubtedly become more open in recent years, there is still a bias towards those from middle class backgrounds, and those from ‘better’ schools that know how to help their students get the grades and play the game of university applications. Look at the halls of government, and the upper echelons of across the land, and you’ll still find a huge proportion of them are a product of private schooling, the ‘right’ post-codes and top-tier universities.

One consequence of all this has been the maintenance of irrelevant social divisions, and the loss of opportunity for millions. But the times, they are a-changin’, as the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature once said. We need to recognise that talent and potential, particularly the potential for leadership, are not the sole province of the graduate, and are complex things that it takes skilled people to spot, nurture and develop. We also need to admit that even the concept of intelligence is complex and often misunderstood in professional contexts. Coming to terms with all of this is part of the kind of organisational culture change that enables organisations to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

Current crops of school-leavers will be faced with a very different set of choices and opportunities to the ones I had. The route to becoming a highly skilled member of the workforce via an apprenticeship is a game-changer, and with luck also a playing-field leveller, and our teachers, parents, careers advisors, and employers need to quickly reevaluate their attitudes to these issues.

I hope, in my lifetime, to see a time when adverts for management roles say ‘must have completed an apprenticeship’ as often as they say ‘must be a graduate’.

More than that, I hope to see a time when those adverts say neither, and select the leaders and managers of the future simply based on their potential, capability and attitude.

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