David Gallagher, NCFE

Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed the power of lifelong learning many times over, whether that’s been in a classroom, in a work environment, or just life in general. The deep belief that learning is the ‘great leveller’ is what drives the purpose of NCFE, to promote and advance learning, to create a fairer and more inclusive society through education. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen the challenge faced by those learners who haven’t chosen or been able to take an academic route into their career or who haven’t undertaken more traditional longer form qualifications. The disparity, and at times clear marginalization linked to this, is the main theme behind what I’m sharing with you today.

During my time working in frontline delivery of employability programmes in some of the most disadvantaged regions of Europe, to my more strategic roles in some of the largest training providers in the UK, I’ve seen the difference that vocational education and skills have made to the lives of thousands of individuals and the communities they live in. Many of the people who came on to programmes during my time in the Welfare to Work sector hadn’t had the kind of role models or support to get them into education or a career, and progress to the next level in the same way as I have had, but I was well aware that they were just as intelligent and capable as me, if not more so. Often, they just needed someone to give them a chance. It got me thinking of the merits of a system that rewards people for their ability to pass exams, sometimes just because their memory recall is better and they cope well under the pressure of exam conditions. Conditions that are rarely repeated post-compulsory education. There are many others who aren’t recognised or rewarded in the same way because they choose to acquire their skills and knowledge through an alternative path – a vocational routeway. It’s something that’s always stuck with me, along with the drive to help find fairer ways for people to fulfil their potential through following the path through learning and life that is best suited to them..

Addressing unconscious bias

So, you can imagine how I felt when I recently noticed an advert for a high-level management job that had a mandatory degree requirement; especially when I don’t have a degree. On reviewing the role I felt that I met all of the requirements, achieved through a route of work experience and vocational qualifications, and I felt this (unconscious?) bias of insisting that a degree was ‘essential’ seemed, frankly, ludicrous.

My initial response of being slightly affronted that on paper I didn’t seem good enough to be eligible to apply for this role, despite years of work experience at the most senior levels and with a raft of skills developed through vocational training, quickly shifted to, ‘if a CEO can be faced with academic snobbery, how much worse might this be for others earlier on in their career’.

I felt compelled to speak up. My ‘degree deficiency’ has never been because I felt I was incapable of getting one, but because I didn’t want to go to university after college, I simply wanted to work. For a number of years after this, I simply couldn’t afford to do anything but work full-time. Partly due to circumstances and partly through choice, I found my own path through education, learning and work. I’m fortunate to have been involved in some fantastic organisations, have gained the most amazing experiences, built networks and developed my career to where I am today at NCFE, and so I’ve never even felt the need to address this ‘degree deficiency’. I can’t say that I believe that for the role I have now – or for the vacancy I saw advertised - a degree would serve me any better than the skills and experience I bring without one. As a leader in education I thought it was important to challenge perceptions that a degree is somehow better than the wide varity of alternatives, that a degree is always required to ‘make it to the top’. It’s not.

I decided to take this challenge to LinkedIn and posted a version of my thoughts above to share with my network, which provoked a lively, and at times impassioned discussion about the importance of degrees, apprenticeships and other routes into employment. It generated such an interesting debate, that in the wake of National Apprenticeship Week, I considered it an appropriate time to revisit the subject and open up the conversation to a wider audience here. 

Before I go any further, I would like to note that I have absolute admiration for those who do have a degree, or any academic qualification for that matter. I applaud their commitment to study and that should be recognised and celebrated, but in the case of the job advert I refer to, as in many others, a degree shouldn’t necessarily be a mandatory requirement. We should value the many different ways that people can achieve and build knowledge, skills and experiences, especially in such a rapidly and dynamically changing labour market.

Using HE as the ultimate benchmark

The attitude towards HE as the gateway to success has always been there but that approach stems from a time when going to university was for many an unattainable goal. There are now five times as many people with degrees as there were in the 1990s, thanks to challenging inequality and widening participation, enabling more degree educated people in the UK than ever before. This access to higher education is fantastic but has led in a lot of instances to people and employers discounting the other equally valuable paths that a person might take into their career.

I am lucky enough to have worked with some amazing people from all walks of life and the biggest thing that this has taught me is that there is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the world of work. We can’t ignore the fact that hands-on experience is just as important, and sometimes more important, than academic theory. Of course, we need our doctors, nurses, engineers etc to be highly trained academically, but we also want them to have that hands-on experience that is crucial for them to be able to succeed in their careers. What we do need to do though is to stop using those professions where a degree is absolutely essential as a benchmark for everything else.

Careers advice to empower learners

I’ve also thought a lot recently about careers advice in the context of how vocational education is perceived by people in terms of a routeway to a career. IAG is a particularly difficult area to get right at the minute, with the labour market shifting so quickly and dynamically, it’s hard to see what’s coming down the track and what sectors are going to have the volume of jobs. For this reason, I’d always encourage learners to choose a job in something that they love doing, and in turn, they will be more engaged and probably fare better at it. Additionally, within education, we need to centre our thinking differently and place emphasis not just on academic achievement, but on nurturing those meta skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and decision making, what I call ‘teaching a person to fish’ skills. If you have these characteristics then you’ll be resilient, and as the world changes, you’ll have what it takes to change with it and survive. Those things are what will set people apart and mean that they have the fundamental skills to achieve, no matter which path they choose.

This isn’t a binary issue

Finally, and most importantly, if we’re going to change the thinking around the respective benefits of FE and HE, we need to stop pitting them against each other because they are both things which we should value equally for what they bring to society and the economy. There is so much crossover in vocational and academic learning and one can’t really exist without the other, so we need to recognise this and nurture, develop and celebrate both in equal measure.

This issue isn’t binary, and employers should approach it this way. The amount of change and upheaval we’ve experienced over the past year shows us that we can change and adapt quickly to new ways of thinking and working, so surely that can apply to outdated recruitment practices too. This could be a great time for employers to rip up the recruitment rule book when it comes to entry requirements, much like the HE and FE sector are having to do in light of exam cancellations.

We’re on the verge of a real step change here and it’s up to us to support employers to focus on what really matters in terms of creating an inclusive workplace – finding the right person for the job - degree or not.

We recently discussed this issue in more depth on the NCFE podcast which you can find here.

David Gallagher, CEO at NCFE

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