A university degree is not always producing the best candidates

Are degrees worth the paper and money?

In many modern startup circles, a formal institution degree does not seem to carry heavy weight any longer, and say a degree alone is definitely no guarantee of a person’s knowledge base, work ability or ethics.

So why are still so many companies persisting on applicants having a degree, even before they get considered for an interview?

Some research conducted over the last few years confirms that, when it comes to getting the careers they want, graduates still have a strong advantage over those who do not have a degree.

Here’s why, says the experts:

  1. It demonstrates a qualification in a given subject
  2. Going to university equip students with other qualities that are invaluable in the workplace
  3. By the time they’ve finished their course, they would have matured and developed a range of useful soft skills

From the outcome of the research it means that graduates are mostly preferred for the “auxiliary skills” or “soft skills” they are supposed to acquire when at university.

But these are the exact same skills anyone can acquire from being employed straight out of school…

Have a look at below skills for which graduates are preferred for over those with no degree. See if you agree that any of these can just as well, if not far better, be obtained in real-world circumstances.


University says: Doing group assignments, joining an after-hours club or playing competitive sports all help develop your ability to work as part of a team.

Leadership and initiative

At university, you need to learn to work on your own initiative, finish assignments on time and take responsibility for your output. Taking the lead on group projects also helps.

Problem solving

The ability to analyse and solve complicated problems should come naturally to anyone who has studied maths or computer science to higher education level.

Written and verbal communication skills

Writing essays, taking part in tutorials and giving presentations as part of a course all build ability to communicate clearly.

Time management

For many people university will be the first time they’ve been left to their own devices when it comes to managing an academic workload.

Decision making

When you’re at school, most decisions are made for you. Going straight into the workplace, where you’re accountable for the decisions you make, can come as a quite a shock for those who haven’t been through the buffer zone of higher education. (Really?)


It’s not until young people leave home and make their own way in the world that they become fully independent. Employers know that going into higher education gives young people the ideal opportunity to become more mature in a safe environment.

Any of these can be learned in a workplace environment ….

According to a 2017 study by LinkedIn, the soft skills most in demand and to be learned volunteering off campus are:

  • Communication skills
  • Organisational skills
  • Teamwork
  • Creativity
  • Social skills

Sandwich skills

A report by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), Employer and University Engagement in the Use and Development of Graduate Level Skill, showed that many employers preferred graduates with sandwich degrees. (Sandwich means, students whose courses include a one year placement within a relevant industry to get real-world experience and sort of know what to expect from the world of work.)

A recent survey by the Financial Times showed what companies consider as the most important skills for MBA students: Are problem solving and decision making.

For those graduates wanted to get a Masters degree – university advises them to: The most desired trait that interviewers look for in applicants is their “analytical sense”, that is, their synthesis skills, their visionary way of thinking, their writing and research skills. These qualities can be developed during internships, part-time jobs, or even through volunteering.

So if understood correctly – this all means, even if you go to university, you still need to learn the actual skills employers want.

Basic knowledge obtained from university can easily be forgotten

Most employers agree, that many of their graduate hires are a disappointment and serve as no guarantee to get a job done efficiently, saying…

“The world changes now so fast, many of them who only rely on their base-knowledge acquired from university will be outdated within 5 years. And we can’t afford to carry passengers.”

Recruiters are starting to shift their focus to assess the soft skills of potential candidates, instead of relying only on their base knowledge of the discipline they studied.

This is because…

Knowledge from a certain discipline or topic would only be remembered (Semantic memory) about 10% of what was learned.

Semantic memory is a structured record of facts, meanings, concepts and knowledge. It refers to general factual knowledge, (independent of personal experience) and of the spatial/temporal context in which it was acquired. Much of semantic memory is abstract and relational and is associated with the meaning of verbal symbols.

Most students or people for that matter, will instead remember episodes for much longer (real experiences). Episodic memory represents memory of experiences and specific events in time in a serial form, from which you can reconstruct the actual events that took place at any given point. It is the memory of autobiographical events (times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated.

Individuals tend to see themselves as actors in these events, and the emotional charge and the entire context surrounding an event is usually part of the memory, not just the bare facts of the event itself.

Which hereby shows real experience are far better understood, loved and remembered than simple facts stated in a classroom.

So continuous learning and experience is imperative for future

Because the cost of universities are so high, in future it may be left to employers to assist in giving people real world experience, and employees to learn from what’s available on the internet, learn from in-company courses, mentors and advisors, networking events, seminars and conferences.

In the future things won’t be so linear and one would have to keep on studying to remain relevant. And very few would be able to afford university for a lifelong learning journey.

Note in above essay, we do not refer to university graduates as professionals such as engineers, doctors, scientist and the like, we refer to disciplines that can easily be obtained with workplace experience such as marketing or economics.

Consider this article that appeared in Arabian Business below and you may agree that university degree may only be relevant for first time job applicants… because there may be no other way to determine if s/he has some knowledge on the position he is hired for. But once a candidate is 30, far more needs to be considered, and by that time s/he would have forgotten their academic training and then company experience would be the more determining factor of his/her competence.

Opinion: why we must adapt or die in this tech-driven world

We must be ready for a lifetime of learning to cope with the pace of technological change in the 21st centuryPeople and machines Jonathan Holmes, managing director, Middle East & North Africa for Korn Ferry, speak at the Arabian Business Forum

As technology advances, concern has been steadily increasing that we, as a labour market, are unprepared.

Some have gone as far as to say that technology will lead to mass unemployment, which, in turn, will have a significant impact on the very fibre of our societies. These concerns, at the very least, should lead us all to ask ourselves an important question: what can we do to prepare?

Certainly, the numbers are alarming. According to research from Korn Ferry, 60 percent of business leaders in the UAE predict that a talent deficit will hit the country as early as 2020. Another 50 percent of respondents said they believe that a third of the existing workforce will no longer be needed in 10 years, along with 20 percent of the total number of human roles.

The end of labour:

What then can be done? Among the most important factors, according to the experts speaking at the recent Arabian Business forum – coverage of which is featured on page 34 – is a much-needed change in mindset.

Almost none of the top Fortune 500 companies of 1960 have survived to this day. Others, such as Nokia barely survived

At present, too many businesses seem to think that negative disruptions are inevitable, but that they won’t happen anytime soon.

“There isn’t enough confidence in labour,” says Korn Ferry Middle East senior client partner Danny Leinders. “Businesses think that it will be somebody else’s problem in the future. Part of it is because it is much easier to plan for technology and tangible assets than it is to plan for your people and culture.”

The fact is that, ready or not, these changes are happening at a pace that is difficult for many of us to fathom. If there is, in fact, a skills gap, then we need a collective attitude change. We need to be ready to accept change, adapt, and move forward. Individuals need to be willing to learn new skills to meet new realities, and companies need to be ready to help train people for drastically altered – or potentially completely new – jobs.

Make no mistake, for companies this process is very much about survival. As was noted during the forum, almost none of the top Fortune 500 companies of 1960 have survived to this day. Others, such as Nokia – which many may not know was founded in 1865 and, which is perhaps more widely known, refused one of the very first patents for a smartphone – struggled and barely survived, having been unprepared for the changes that suddenly came its way.

Getting with the program

Fortunately, a look at the future of the workplace need not be all doom and gloom. Increasingly, companies are demonstrating innovative thinking and new ways of approaching the issue.

One example, as Dell EMC Middle East, Africa and Turkey SVP Mohammed Amin noted at the forum, is that employers in the future will focus more on the “innovative” potential of job candidates, to determine the probability of them being able to adapt to new business models.

This should be seen as a positive thing. As Amin says: “When machines are next to us, they will take all the jobs that take our time and they will allow us to unleash our ideas.”

Some have gone as far as to say that technology will lead to mass unemployment

The most important thing to remember going forward is that, as workers and as businesses, we are all works in progress. With technology advancing as rapidly as it is, there is quite simply no way we can ever be prepared for a future that we can’t fully understand.

The best we can do is to be prepared for a lifetime of learning.

Be ready to adapt, be ready to be flexible and be ready to give yourself the fundamental skills that will allow you to “transcend” specific roles.

In doing so we can be part of the transformation that companies around the world will have to go through over the next few decades.

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