Do your candidates really need a ‘good degree’?

by Joseph Dudley

The space sector has the most highly credentialed workforce of any sector. Fully 75% of people hold at least a first degree 1, and practically all jobs adverts ask for one. Replace this requirement with a list of explicit skills and you can get better quality applications from a wider and more diverse pool of candidates.

What is a ‘good’ degree?

Some organisations go beyond just requiring a degree. In a recent job posting, one space company asked for “a strong Bachelor’s degree in engineering from a reputable university”. But what is a strong degree? And what’s a reputable university?

A ‘good’ or ‘strong’ degree is usually taken to mean a first or an upper second (2:1). If that’s what we mean, then why not say that instead of making people guess? As for a ‘reputable’ university, that’s anyone’s guess. There are surely very few people who would consider their university disreputable.

People who don’t get a ‘good’ degree are usually characterised as being lazy, perhaps stupid, and in any case not people you would want to employ.

But that’s not the whole story. Plenty of people do poorly in their degrees not because of lack of hard work (the prevalence of the ‘good’ degree requirement creates a pretty strong incentive), but because of circumstances beyond their control. They may suffered from mental or physical illness while at university, they may have been made homeless or penniless part way through their studies, they may have a disability, or they may have been subjected to discrimination.

EY, one of the ‘big four’ accounting firms, dropped the requirement for particular degree classifications on their graduate programme back in 2015:

Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment. It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.

Maggie Stilwell, EY Managing Partner for Talent 2

A study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that working-class graduates are ‘locked out’ of top careers 3. They often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, which means they do less well in school, get into lower-ranked universities, and are then overlooked in favour of candidates from the Russell Group.

If you are serious about being inclusive and getting applications from a diverse range of candidates, then allow those candidates to come from a diverse range of places, not just one small group of universities.

No degree doesn’t mean no skills

Are degrees even necessary at all? We have a tendency to reach for ‘university degree’ as a quick shorthand for the set of skills we actually want. In addition to subject knowledge, degrees are often taken as evidence of time management, teamwork, and communication skills, an ability to learn new things quickly, to problem solve, and to adapt to change.

But these are all skills that we know can be learned elsewhere. They are the same things we tout as being the benefits of extra-curricular projects, volunteering, and summer placements. If these are the skills we really want, then let’s ask for them explicitly and let a degree be just one of the ways that candidates can demonstrate them.

Degrees are also about subject knowledge, and this is much less easily gained elsewhere. For highly technical roles in particular, there is no substitute and a specific degree really is a hard requirement. For a lot of positions however, we are quite often willing to accept any STEM degree or any degree at all. We also welcome people from other sectors, confident that they will be able to pick up the space-specific aspects of the job as they go along. It seems then that subject-specific knowledge is not a strict requirement either.

We can’t afford to turn good people away

If subject-knowledge isn’t always essential, and transferable skills can be gained elsewhere, then why do we persist in asking for a degree in almost all cases?

In the midst of a skills shortage, and with immigration constraints tighter than ever, even for skilled migrants, we do not have the luxury of asking for things we don’t really need.

The percentage of people having entered higher education by the age of 30 stands at just over 50% 4. By excluding them from even applying, we start our search for skilled candidates with one hand tied behind our backs.

In the tech sector, which has been grappling with skills shortages for some time, many companies have started to drop the requirement for their software developers to have degrees. Facebook for example accepts relevant experience in lieu of a degree, whilst Monzo, an online bank, says:

There are 17 Android engineers at Monzo. We have several non-graduates; only some of us studied Computer Science; one of the team has a degree in Marketing; some of us have worked in huge companies; some have only ever worked in startups; others are former consultants. As long as you enjoy learning new things, we’d love to talk to you.

Monzo job advert 5

Basecamp, a leading provider of project-management software, is even more explicit that a degree is not what they’re looking for:

You might have a CS [Computer Science] degree. You might not. That’s not what we’re looking for. We care about what you can do and how you do it, not about how you got here. A strong track record of conscientious, thoughtful work speaks volumes.

Basecamp job advert 6

And this is for a programming job with a $150,000 salary.

Ditching the degree doesn’t mean lowering the bar

Many people have dropped out of university and still gone on to great success. Notable examples include Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), Steve Jobs (founder of Apple), Richard Branson (founder of Virgin), and Sir John Major (former British Prime Minister), but there are plenty of others who are no less competent for being less well known.

Removing the requirement for a degree doesn’t mean lowering the bar one inch, it means taking the bar out of university campuses and putting it in a place where everyone can try to meet it. Quality candidates can come from everywhere, so let’s not hold them back.

By dropping a requirement you don’t really need, you widen your pool of candidates without lowering your bar. By being more explicit about your requirements, you make it easier for candidates to cut to the chase, saving you and them time.


  1. ^ Sadlier et al. (). The Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2018. London Economics.
  2. ^ Havergal, C. (). Ernst and Young drops degree classification threshold for graduate recruitment. Times Higher Education.
  3. ^ (). Non-educational barriers to the elite professions evaluation, p. 9. Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
  4. ^ Department for Education (). Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 2006/2007 – 2017/2018 (Provisional).
  5. ^ Monzo (). Senior Android Engineer at Monzo.
  6. ^ Makhmali, J. (). Basecamp is hiring a Programmer. Signal v. Noise.
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