It’s hardly a secret that the UK’s Further and Higher Education Act 1992 helped to diversify access to degree-level education. It was an excellent way to bridge the social mobility gap and ensure that students from different backgrounds could go to university.
Over the years, combined with the introduction of private universities, this has facilitated a significant increase in the number of university graduates, which has also been accompanied by a sharp rise in the number of students graduating with first-class and upper-second-class degrees. Last year, the proportion of graduates with first-class degrees rose to a third.
This massive inflation, particularly in the number of firsts, is making it harder for employers to differentiate between applicants, and thus giving those employers an incentive to introduce extra stages in their graduate assessment centres. Five rounds of interviews followed by psychometric tests, a presentation and group-work stages − where applicants are watched intently by the graduate HR team while they try to complete a task alongside other candidates who are competing for the same job − are now commonplace.
While this may seem excessive, for some it represents a revered selection process and one to which many graduates aspire. But even to reach this stage applicants must ensure they have enough on their CV to make it past the first stage and score an invitation for a video interview, where they will sometimes be interviewed via an automated process in which their responses are recorded and assessed using artificial intelligence software.
So the question becomes how graduates can bolster their CVs to stand out from the competition when the differentiating factor itself − their degree classification − is no longer sufficient.
It’s not that the degree is no longer important − many graduate applications begin with the question: “Do you have a 2.1/1 or not?” Those without the revered 2.1/1 are not invited to proceed with their application. The degree itself has transitioned from a differentiating factor to a basic benchmark.
So what can serve as a differentiating factor when it comes to student employability? The answer appears to come from an unexpected area: short online courses designed to teach a specific skill, also known as microcredentials. At present, university curricula often fail to adapt to the rapid changes in industry demand fuelled by the ongoing technological progress we all face in different areas of work.
However, online microcredentials – particularly those from a well-established professional body – can adapt to these changes much faster. They can deliver a tangible positive effect on student CVs and signal student awareness of practices and norms of work in specific industries.
From my experience of incorporating the Bloomberg Market Concepts e-course in the regular module assessment at the University of Sussex Business School, I have seen the practical effect that these have had not only on students’ knowledge of the Bloomberg terminal (thereby providing experiential learning, which is also something employers value greatly), but also the direct effect it has on student CVs and LinkedIn profiles. It allows them to stand out from the competition and offer something in addition to the degree that all the applicants have. Even better, it allows each student a degree of autonomy over how best to develop their CV.
For example, a student looking to work in investment banking could undertake a short online course on the modelling of leveraged buyouts in Excel. This gives them something extra to mention in their cover letter regarding how their skills match those required to perform well in that division.
For some, the fact that an online course can have such a direct positive impact may be surprising. It was once a prevalent belief that such courses were somehow inferior or unreliable. But findings by the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy reveal the opposite. Its survey of 750 employers in the US showed that 61 per cent believe credentials earned online can be of equal quality to those completed in person.
Perhaps this flexibility can be partially explained by another finding of the same survey − that 44 per cent of employers have demonstrated an increasing preference for enhanced educational attainment for the same jobs over a five-year period. In addition, 64 per cent of employers believe there is a need for lifelong learning.
At a time when student employability and outcomes are arguably under greater scrutiny than ever before, by both government and universities, employer expectations will make these short courses a key means to maintain relevance in the labour market. Online microcredentials are not a temporary fad; they are here to stay.
Madina Tash is accounting and finance placement lead and director of the Bloomberg Financial Markets Laboratory at the University of Sussex Business School.