(Not so) great expectations

Hattie / 18th Oct, 2016 / News

Another week and another bit of misery heaped on graduates. Last weekend’s Sunday Times featured a piece about how a Cambridge degree isn’t the golden ticket it once was – and the BBC’s Bottom Line programme was all about the many advantages of apprenticeships over degrees.

Journalist Leaf Arbuthnot graduated from Cambridge with a first class degree two years ago. She now writes for the Sunday Times. Not a bad gig – but in her piece, she observes that not all her mates from Cambridge were as fulfilled with their lot. In fact, you’ve got to wonder who she mixed with ‘cos none of them seem a particularly happy bunch. Cambridge admissions people take note?

Anyway, the problem appears to be about expectations that are not being met.

For someone clever and motivated enough to get a place at one of the world’s best universities, it’s probably not unreasonable to expect you’re on track to walk into just about any job you want. You’ve won the gene lottery and been given a good brain.

Arbuthnot says however, that in her experience, many Cambridge graduates want careers that are more “fulfilling.” Traditionally, top university graduates are hoovered up in their thousands by those boring old investment banks, management consultants and law firms. Many, it now seems, unwillingly. Graduates who choose the well worn path and a forty grand starting salary in the City, big law firms and the like are treated with contempt by their more worthy contemporaries. Bankers have sold out. Whereas, those seeking a career in a charity are treated with reverence and respect.

But, here’s the thing. Arbuthnot claims that if you choose to follow your conscience and forego the temptations of the traditional grad schemes, a Cambridge degree can actually work against you. She says that people are actually having to hide the fact that they’ve been to Cambridge. Apparently, there are employers out there who don’t take kindly to smarty-pants Cambridge grads – and that if you want a “secure, professional fulfilment”, God forbid you name-drop the university on your CV.

Questions: Schools will quite rightly be delighted with the idea of any of their students getting into Cambridge. But are those young people being given the right sort of advice if, at the end of it, they have to deny having been there? Mad.



Meanwhile, back in the real world, Evan Davis’ guests on his brilliant programme, The Bottom Line were the Chief Exec of Aston Martin Lagonda, Dr Andy Palmer, Lara Wynn, an apprentice at Barclays and PWC’s head of corporate purpose (yes, really), Gaenor Bagley. They were discussing the rise and rise of non-graduate recruitment in their respective companies.



The general message is a no-brainer: apprentices have a better retention record than graduates. They make better corporate employees because they’re attuned to the company’s ethos from an early stage – and they make better managers because of their exposure to training from an early age.

Companies are finding that while exam results act as a minimum starting point for apprentices, their interview and selection processes mean that they’re getting more of the right sort of candidates – in other words they look beyond just exams.

Most of all it seems that the increasing volume of school leavers who choose to go straight into the workplace simply don’t come with the baggage of a graduate with very high expectations of their own worth.

The panel’s final message is worth repeating – which is that we’ve got to get the message into schools about the alternatives to university. “We need ambassadors to tell the next generation…”

Well, if you’re reading this, you could be that ambassador. We’re pushing the message out to schools and colleges and to our growing community of school leavers. So, please share your experiences with us – as an apprentice or a graduate.



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