Why it’s time to look past the university degree when hiring

It’s time businesses became more open minded and stopped snubbing people based on their higher education status, argues Samuel Leach.

Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson all have one thing in common – they didn’t complete their university degrees. Instead, they jumped off the university conveyer belt and pursued their passions, to great success.

Despite the example they have set, and a rising desire among young people to get started in the working world as soon as possible, the stigma remains that university is the only route to success. A view point that has infiltrated the minds of students and hirers at businesses alike.

Consequently, more and more young people are applying for university each year, many studying degrees they don’t enjoy, and racking up considerable amounts of debt, because they can’t see another option. In fact, from 2017 to 2018 university applications increased by 1.1 per cent in England.

While there is nothing wrong with hiring university students if they’re the best candidate for the job, it’s time businesses became more open minded and stopped snubbing people based on their higher education status. Instead they should be focusing on potential employees’ raw talent and passion, as these are the keys to an effective, diverse and unified workforce.

Hiring process

Graduate scheme applications are competitive and notoriously biased towards candidates that achieved a first-class degree at a Russell Group university. This not only limits the number of applicants but also deters those who could be extremely well-suited to the job but lack higher education qualifications. This in turn creates a gender disparity; men apply for a job if they match 60 per cent of the job spec, when women only apply if they meet 100 per cent of it.

However, many companies are now beginning to implement CV-blind policies on recruitment, so interviewers aren’t privy to what schools and universities each applicant attended. Meanwhile, others, such as EY, have dropped degree classification and A-level grades from the entry criteria entirely, instead implementing in-house tests, as they have recognised that there is no real correlation between academic achievement and success in the professional workforce. After all, many young people are highly intelligent, but either don’t excel in an exam environment or don’t want to attend university.

This is something we have come across multiple times at Samuel & Co. Our youngest trader is 18 years old and came to us straight from school, wanting to get straight into the workplace rather than going to university. This shouldn’t be punished but rewarded with a wider range of opportunities for training and learning on the job.

Education neutral perspectives are a significant step forward in diversifying the global workforce but is by no means the norm and far more needs to be done to challenge and overcome perceptions.

Work experience

When searching for a candidate it’s important to take into consideration their work experience. Most degrees aren’t vocational and as a result don’t directly lead onto a specific job. As a result, work experience is a far more reliable indicator of their passion and how their skills set can be applied to the specific job you are hiring for. Similarly, looking into their hobbies and extracurricular activities will give you a better idea of their personality and if they are better suited for the role and your company, rather than their choice of university and degree.

Soft skills

When making hiring decisions, employers should be assessing a candidate’s hard and soft skills as a pair. Possessing soft skills, such as strong communication capabilities and an aptitude for listening, presenting and collaborating, is crucial for any employee as they help create a productive, healthy workforce that can cater to all customer needs.

Their importance was highlighted in a recent Deloitte report which predicted that two thirds of all jobs will be soft skill intensive by 2030 – an unsurprising trend when we consider that the integration of technology into the workplace is creating a decline in the requirement for hard skills.

However, soft skills are rarely taught, learned and perfected at university. Refining them takes conscious effort and commitment to personal self-development and this typically occurs independently from education.

My Marketing and Advertising degree gave me the skills that would help shape and publicise my business. However, I’ve had to perfect other key skills, such as public speaking, outside of the university realm. Learning from mentors in the workplace and practising in meetings was pivotal to this and has helped me develop from someone who is quite timid to presenting a TEDx Talk in April – an event that was crucial in bolstering my businesses’ success.

Diverse perspectives

At Samuel & Co. Trading, we ensure that our traders are from a wide range of backgrounds to ensure the best sense of diversity. Each trader brings a different dynamic to the team, created by their personal experiences; whether these have been gathered at university, work experience or from teaching themselves online.

Hiring people from every walk of life will make your business more well-rounded. This is an irreplaceable asset, particularly when making important business decisions, as in these situations someone could have a great idea that you might not have thought about, just because they have a different background and perspective on the situation. If you hire from the same institution, the lack of diversity will stunt your collective creativity unnecessarily.


One thing in common with all the traders at Samuel & Co. is the passion for their role and their future at the company. This is the most important quality to look for when hiring new employees. Passion isn’t born in the classroom, it’s born through a curiosity to learn and achieve. It’s impossible for companies to assess passion on a piece of paper, or their degree. Creating an interview process that lets candidates show off their passion for the role will make sure that they are the most suitable person for the role and will strive for success.

Looking past the university degree will create a diverse, exciting and well-rounded workforce. It will mean that businesses hire on merit, rather than on the basis of who has completed every rung on the ladder of the conventional education system. As a result, young people will be inspired to strive for careers they are passionate about, rather that attending university to achieve a level of success they only think is possible by going down the traditional route. Companies bringing in CV-blind interview processes are leading the way in eliminating discrimination and introducing a completely fair opportunity for all candidates when pursuing their passions.

Samuel Leach is director and founder of Samuel & Co. Trading

Further reading on university degrees

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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