Forget degrees - the university experience is what matters

Employers value rounded and insightful job candidates far more than mere qualifications

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 3:08am

There is a common and tenacious misconception that employers care about university degrees. This idea seems to be especially prevalent in Hong Kong.

But it is largely balderdash, and the time has come to set the record straight as new students are just settling into their first month at university and need to know how their degrees are likely to be viewed by prospective employers.

Don't get me wrong, going to university is a definite plus but the courses students follow are rarely the biggest issue when it comes to getting a job.

I know this because as an employer I am not much bothered by what job candidates have studied, I am far more interested in how their learning experience shaped their ways of thinking.

Meanwhile, when I was an employee I cannot think of a single occasion when an employer asked me about my university course; aside from one misguided moment when I applied to work for an international bureaucracy.

Universities should prepare students for life, not the workforce

There are, of course some professions, such as law and medicine, which require specific qualifications offered by universities. Moreover some subjects, like engineering, also fulfil certain job requirements but academic courses tend not to be vocation specific.

So, setting these exceptions aside, we can recognise that the real task of universities, at least at undergraduate level, should be to provide a general education, hopefully in subjects that interest the students. Yet far too many students and their parents seem to think that universities are or should be glorified vocational training centres. There is a sense that some subjects, such as sociology, are a waste of time because global demand for sociologists is distinctly limited.

But this is to miss the point and insist that universities should focus on job training on the assumption that the sole purpose of education is to prepare young people for the workforce, whereas they should be preparing them for life. This is achieved in many ways but it includes developing critical faculties, deepening curiosity and learning to be articulate.

Meanwhile, at university there's something called friendship, nowadays demeaned by its description as "networking", depriving the term of its human element. Whatever it's called, lifetime bonds and associations are formed at universities that may well have a bearing on careers.

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I have a degree in politics, often cited as a "useless" subject, moreover I was imprudent enough to embark on a PhD in the treacherous world of Middle East politics. That doctorate remains gloriously uncompleted although the university that I slunk away from occasionally sends me letters addressed to Dr Vines. Did I also mention that these letters tend to be soliciting funds?

Anyway the point is that nothing in the actual subject matter of my studies equipped me to run a food business. Indeed, I am not even sure that the curriculum had much direct relevance to my past life as a reporter but I am very grateful for the university experience because it transformed a rather unworldly school boy into a far more confident person equipped with thinking abilities that have proved to be useful in the workforce.

Now I'm at the hiring end of the table my eyes glaze over when candidates arrive for job interviews clutching files of certificates accompanied by wonderful tales of exam results. Don't get me wrong, these qualifications cannot be entirely dismissed but what I'm looking for at managerial level is someone who understands the business, has ideas and is capable of fitting in to the firm.

There is no great science in this, although, no doubt, a stack of management studies books, which aim at making a science out of this, is gathering dust somewhere. The thing is that when hiring people you have to rely on instinct, which means you are often wrong (well, okay, I am often wrong). Very few employers will rely exclusively on a job candidate's academic qualifications.

Having entered the workforce graduates can furnish experience and the recommendation of employers, but the catch-22 is how to get there in the first place, which means they have to impress prospective employers in other ways. This is where a broad educational background comes into play because a certificate-clutching job candidate with little to say is more than likely to lose out to a bright, self-confident person with a bit of depth to their thinking. At this point, as they say out there in the academic world: "discuss".

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster