[First published in Children and Young People Now, December 2015]

Have you ever read a job description and wondered exactly how the required ‘degree level’ education for it made someone best equipped to do it? I know I have. Far too often. In fact, since I left university at the age of 21, I can’t think of one job I’ve done that actually demanded any of the skills or knowledge that my degree gave me. And yes, that most certainly includes being a Chief Executive!

It causes me a great sense of guilt to be part of a generation who benefitted from full tuition and maintenance grants for my study, while today’s young people face such intimidating sums in personal debt, and their repayment long into adulthood, for the same right to education that I enjoyed at taxpayers’ expense (which of course included my parents!). If I’d faced such huge personal debt to study I honestly doubt I’d have gone to university at all. I like to think that I’d still have been able to have the career I’ve followed anyway, based on my competence, passion and commitment to the roles I sought out. But if I were entering today’s employment market without a degree, I doubt that I’d have got to do any of the amazing jobs I’ve been able to, ranging from senior practice to policy, campaigns and senior management. 

Why has having a degree become ‘the gateway’ to any hope of having the most interesting, satisfying and well-paid work across sectors and professions? The likes of Richard Branson and Alan Sugar are regularly held up as examples of the great careers and commercial success that can be achieved without high performance in formal education. Where are the voluntary sector’s equivalent heroes of ‘self-made’ leadership? Where are the service-users turned great social entrepreneurs, using their insight, passion and experience to blaze a creative trail? The voluntary sector often claims to be both the challenge and the antidote to structural inequality and the class ceiling in our society, but still manages to be dominated by leaders who are predominantly white, middle class, and university educated (myself, clearly, included). Can we really sustain the argument that it has nothing to do with our recruitment practices?

Throughout my career, right up to and including my current team, I have worked alongside many brilliant people performing really important, creative, responsible jobs, without ever getting a degree. Our finance director here at Children England has worked here for over 20 years, and is glowingly valued by our accountants as one of the best they know. She never got a degree. Anna Feuchtwang, brilliant sector leader, CEO, campaigner (and CYPNow columnist!) got to where she is today without a degree. You probably know some other examples, but my bet would be they aren’t under 30!

Many of those colleagues I know say that if they were starting their career again now they wouldn’t even qualify for the shortlist for the kind of roles they once got, and performed well. Some within our sector, who’ve faced redundancy and unemployment since the downturn, attest to the widespread barrier to new jobs that they encounter without a degree behind them, whatever their ‘equivalent’ experience. ‘Grade inflation’ has reached far beyond the school exam system, right into the employment market, and degrees seem to have become used more and more widely as a ‘filter’ to narrow down the volume of applications, rather than a ‘qualification’ to do the job in any honest sense of the word. 

As the ink dries on the May budget that finally withdrew the last remaining grants for our poorest potential students, this should force all of us who are employers to re-examine our use of ‘degree level’ specifications for jobs that don’t legally or technically require them (like teaching, social work or nursing). That is why Children England and NCB are launching a campaign called Open To All, encouraging all employers, and particularly those in the voluntary sector, to join us in promising to make all our job opportunities Open to All people with the talent, skills and passion to work in our sector, whether they have a degree or not. We hope it can act as a ‘badge of honour’, like the Living Wage, for employers who want to signal to today’s richly diverse and talented young people, that we value people more than paper. We also hope that it can send a signal to school pupils that as they make their choices about what they might do in life, they could have brilliant careers and satisfying jobs in a voluntary sector that won’t ask them to take on such heavy student debts if they don’t want to.

In a brief online survey we conducted to test people’s experience of job applications for work in the charity sector, 50% told us they simply didn’t understand what ‘or equivalent’ means when asked for as an alternative to a degree. A third told us they had been deterred from applying for a job in a charity because of not having a degree. The question that all of us must ponder is how much great and diverse talent we may be missing out on in our recruitment, if we are asking for degrees for jobs where they aren’t really essential. If you’re up for making an organisational commitment to be Open to All, please join us.

Kathy Evans

Chief Executive