There are big men, men of intellect, intellectual men, men of talent and men of action; but the great man is difficult to find, and it needs – apart from discernment – a certain greatness to find him.
Today, thousands of kids across the UK who have been coached and cajoled for the past 14 years of their existence towards a goal of higher education will have all of their expectations rocked to their very foundations by the revelation that they have failed to secure the required grades for a place at college or university.
For some, this will merely have accelerated the need for the kind of considered decision-making that they had hoped to postpone with three years of mild debauchery and last-minute cramming in one of Britain’s more picturesque provincial cities. Others will suffer a crisis of confidence in their future like nothing they have experienced to date. Something of a black hole seems to yawn open before these youngsters and the way in which the mainstream media covers this ritual humiliation is unhelpful at best and willfully propagates the myth of the one true path from cradle to grave at worst. Everything our children are taught is framed by the unholy trinity of school-university-work. We are conditioned to accept the inevitability of this process as if it were as certain as the turning of the seasons.
Before I continue I should, for the sake of balance, point out that I barely scraped a couple of low-grade ‘A’ Levels and, by choice, never went to university (true, also, that I never tried so will never know if an application would have been successful). I had plenty of friends who achieved incredible results in their exams and who went on to gain first class degrees. Almost without exception, not one person is any further along in their career than those of their contemporaries who either chose, or had no choice but to not go to university.
Our education system and broader society works on a handy assumption that university or some other form of higher education is the natural progression from secondary school along with an equally lazy received wisdom that those who fail to progress to secondary school are already falling behind the curve. The extension of this kind of thinking is that their value to society is diminished as a consequence. Of course, a great many of these individuals roll their sleeves up and get down to work oiling the wheels of the economy a lot sooner than those they leave behind in the classroom and they start paying taxes sooner, arguably underwriting the costs of those who stay on the conveyor belt. The financial services sector is stuffed full of the supposed best and brightest minds, recruiting almost exclusively from a graduate pool, and these are the businesses that have failed us all so spectacularly. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw conclusions as to who serves a more socially useful purpose.
The ubiquity of degrees and MBAs in potential candidates is making it ever harder for businesses to distinguish true talent for roles that truly require it. Near universal access to higher education is working against the very people it seeks to give an advantage to. A degree or similar qualification has become just one more box to tick in a process that starts to seem as arbitrary as a roll of the dice and the whim of an underprepared and time-poor interviewer. If a degree just gets you a tick in a box, where does that leave an applicant whose qualifications are written in raw talent, luck and perspiration? Studying for a degree is an incredibly important and worthwhile undertaking. But it is only as valuable as how you apply the knowledge gained, aligned with your talents.
I have recruited and interviewed scores of people over the last 15 years and it has never once been the quality of their qualifications that has distinguished the successful candidates. Very few of them have not been proud graduates. The non-graduates never even got sent for consideration. Goodness knows how many exceptional talents we missed hiring because of that oversight. Qualifications may, and can, open doors but those with doors need to be discerning about who they let in. Industry bodies, rather than just being the organisations that the media phone when they need a handy quote when running a piece on exam results, should be actively communicating with those about to leave education (at whatever stage that might be) to promote careers in their sector and demonstrating that a lack of a degree is no barrier to building those careers successfully.
So, at this time of all times, I’m urging employers to get the blinkers off and break the cycle. Some of the very brightest talents in the country are not going to university this autumn. They’re spending the waning days of summer wondering what the hell to do with their futures. While they’re looking into the void, we have collectively got the chance to shine a light in and invite them over the threshold so we can discover how they can help us grow sustainable and profitable businesses. This is surely the kind of open door policy we can all get behind.