The value of a broad education

Gooding: The value of a broad education

Yes, there’s unfairness in the education system. But proof of academic achievement is nevertheless valuable, especially as post-pandemic on-the-job training investment has been insufficient.

August is quite a month for everyone eagerly awaiting exam results. Summer holidays are given an additional bit of edge for students and their families as degree results are unveiled (or not), university places are secured, and GCSE results make the route to chosen A-level subjects a reality.

This year I noticed a new discourse emerging about whether the rewards justify the anxiety and cost, and furthermore, whether employers are even interested in academic results in the long term.

Our Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak (educated at Winchester College, Oxford and Stanford Universities) grabbed headlines by vowing to crack down on “rip-off degree courses” and the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (who left school at 16) was quoted as saying students “shouldn’t be disappointed” if their results were not as they hoped for as employers “won’t ask you anything about you’re A-level grades in 10 years’ time. They will ask you about other things you have done since then: what you have done in the workplace, what you did at university.”

Meanwhile, the cost of servicing student debt has risen to an eye-watering 7.1%, and changes to the way they are financed mean that more graduates than ever will have to repay their student loan (plus interest) in full to the government before they retire. This means that the debt can amass to more than £100,000 over a graduate’s lifetime. In the meantime, employers’ investment in the training and development of their workforce has steadily declined over time.

And efforts to create a more level playing field have led to some companies going further than excluding identifiers such as name, age and gender in the hope of reducing discrimination, and doing away with CVs completely. Replacing this useful brief summary of academic record and achievements with other forms of bespoke Q&A supposedly designed to show aptitude to the role being advertised.

You could forgive those who may be starting to wonder whether there is any point in having a solid academic record to strengthen an application for a job.

I recently had a conversation with a senior D&I consultant who told me they refused to apply for any role that requested a CV and felt employers should “just look at my LinkedIn profile.” What’s more, they had removed any reference to having captained a school rugby team “in case it gave them an unfair advantage.”

I admire the confidence of such views, but for me it is well-intentioned desire to encourage equitable recruitment practices translated into an unhelpful game of cat and mouse.

Equitable recruitment comes from knowing about candidates, not hiding the credentials of people with more privileged educational backgrounds.

Academic performance is a good indicator of critical thinking

I will put my cards on the table. I think academic achievement, a record of previous work experience and an insight into broader interests are a vital way of summarising an applicant in the first instance. Whether at GCSE, A-level or degree-level, academic attainment demonstrates effort and application and provides a common currency for evaluation. For employers looking for self-motivation, critical thinking, the ability to formulate thoughts coherently and an interest in achieving goals, grades are a good proxy.

I am concerned about the idea that employers want schools to teach subject matter knowledge and skills that are directly relevant to future employment. Those of us who work in marketing and other creative industries should be concerned at any undermining of the value of academic achievement and a broad education.

Yes, I understand that there is unfairness in the system. The quality of teaching and parental support varies across the country and socio-economic factors impact life chances. That’s before we get into the different aptitude of students to do well in different subjects.

We also know that attendance at the Oxbridge and Russell Group universities are often looked on more favourably by employers. But let’s not try to persuade ourselves that people with higher levels of education and good results shouldn’t expect to find it easier to get good jobs.

In contrast, we should continue to encourage the idea that pursuing further education and high grades are valuable goals, regardless of the subject studied.

In a rapidly changing world, it is vital that we encourage independent thinkers. People able to engage with the complexity that surrounds us and find ways to make sense of our observations. We should want our colleagues to be curious about the world around them, to seek out facts and to use empirical evidence to support arguments.

It makes sense for employers to be both interested in the track record of achievements of our people and proactively looking for ways to continue their education and development.

Employers should up their game in training

Worryingly it would seem that the opposite is true. A recent report by the Learning and Work Institute estimates that between 2005 and 2019 training spend per employee plummeted by 28%. The government’s most recent statistics show investment in training has simply plateaued since 2019.

The 70-20-10 learning model is widely accepted as one of the best frameworks for learning and development on a corporate context. The 40-year-old model suggests that people should acquire 70% of new knowledge from on-the-job experiences; 20% from interacting with peers; and 10% from formal education. The ratios make sense on paper, seeing as “learning by doing” is the most effective way to apply and habituate new skills. However, the problem is that whilst the 70-20-10 model is aspirational, it’s not being implemented.

Simply being at work doesn’t mean you are learning anything. And when so many people are isolated and working in their homes it is even less likely that peer interaction is contributing to people’s development prospects. Managers are not reinforcing what is learnt in the classroom with proactive application and follow-up back at work. We all know from our school days that homework after a lesson meant you had to go away and apply newly acquired knowledge by doing it later.

As managers return from extended summer breaks, I hope they will have another look at what training and learning opportunities are in place for their teams. Rather than discrediting or discounting the value of academic qualifications we would do well to reinforce the importance of lifelong continuous formal education.

I would challenge all employers to increase the investment they are making in training and development. It requires a realistic budget as well as giving people the time to participate.

I see it as a core part of any employer’s responsibility to provide meaningful training and for managers to get much better at reinforcing any learning by giving opportunities to apply it. Preferably with feedback and an assessment afterwards.

I am still doing it at the ripe old age of 64. Every year I enrol on a course to deepen my practice as a coach, and yes, I even subject myself to formal assessment. Clients don’t ask me what mark I got, but they certainly want the reassurance of qualifications, and I am proud to have the credentials. I worked hard to get them.

We should continue to send out the message loud and clear that achievements at school, university and throughout a career in marketing is valued and something we want to know about.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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