Sunday, July 14, 2013

Is There a Correlation Between Educational and Business Achievement?

Rory Sutherland, vice-president of Ogilvy Group UK, a leading communications and marketing company, is quoted in The Times as saying “I have asked around and nobody has any evidence to suggest that, for any given university, recruits with first class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds. If anything, the correlation operates in reverse.”

He went on to say that “if you’re at university and you’re surrounded by general entertainment and you decide to sit in your room reading Thucydides, then you’re probably a bit of a weirdo. There may be an argument that if you fill business with intellectuals, then they make things far more complicated than they need to be,” (Kate Mansey, The Times, 07.07.13, p.9).

And Julie Henry and Sian Griffiths, highlight in the Times a week later, that “universities are manipulating their exam rules to make it easier for students to secure first class degrees, a study has revealed. Where the number of first class degrees has more than doubled in the past ten years and in complete contradiction to the ideas quoted above Gareth Williams, emeritus professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, London says ‘we have seen a race for firsts. Employers will look only at people with firsts or 2:1’s so there is enormous pressure in institutions for students to reach that benchmark,” (14.07.13, p.4).

What’s really incredible is that universities, rather than any external body, sets the rules for degree standards, which in itself is crazy when they are trying to attract students to pay higher fees – so it basically sounds like you can ‘buy’ your first, to some extent. And then, after all that, some employers certainly won’t look at it that favourably when others will. Lord Winston, for example, a leading fertility expert says, he ‘deliberately’ doesn’t hire graduates with first class degrees for jobs in his laboratories.

An analysis of how degree classifications are calculated has uncovered widespread manipulation of the rules governing student assessment which, according to some academics, has created a ‘race for firsts’ driven by a demand for success by fee-paying undergraduates.

Some people reading this will rightly go even further and ask what university degrees have to do with it in the first place. There are plenty of very successful businessmen and women who have developed and grown their own large, successful business, who haven’t even been to university – and have gained their knowledge in the ‘real’ world often from a very young age - where they have become extremely street smart. They might not have all the theory but their practical knowledge often surpasses the most educated of people.

So a key question that still remains is; ‘what is the correlation between academic achievement and business achievement – and what should that correlation actually be?’

Beyond the excellent research that universities carry out, usually funded by organisations that are interested in the results – is higher education becoming nothing more than a business, and possibly a not very good one at that? A successful business is usually one where there is a high correlation between its outputs (product and/or service) and the needs of the customer – but the jury seems to be out on the real correlation between education and business, at the detailed level (i.e. university by subject) correlated to business success.

As writing this I wonder what students are thinking who were awarded first class degrees, for example, where some might now have to come to terms with the fact that they didn’t actually deserve a first class degree, in the first place, and now that they’ve been generously given one to improve the credibility of the university they attended, some employers won’t even consider employing them.

I wonder if anyone has ever asked for their degree to be moderated downwards, to be more accepted in the marketplace – as that would then be the ‘cherry on the cake’?


Mansey, K. (2013). Got a 2:2? Like to get stoned? You’re hired! The Sunday Times. 07.07.13. p.9.

Henry, J. and Griffiths, S. (2013). Universities bend their rules to award firsts. The Sunday Times. 14.07.13. p.4.

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