If you type the phrase ‘Mickey Mouse degree’ into internet search engine Google you get 200 or so pages of raging debate and definitions of what does or doesn’t constitute a valid academic qualification. The phrase was first used by former education minister Margaret Hodge in the late 1990s when the Labour government set a target of getting 50% of students into higher education by 2010.
It has since become a popular euphemism for wasting three years of your life on a useless university course that has no merit in the workplace. And you don’t have to look to far to see the dizzying array of degree courses on offer with HR.
Some universities offer as many as 66 different options combined with HR including dance, festival management and even criminology.
But what do HR managers really look for in graduates and do these weird and wonderful courses actually have any credibility with employers?
Too much choice
There are more than 165 universities and higher educational institutions in the UK today, and Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), says the sheer volume is overwhelming for employers.
“There’s no national standard for degree courses, so it can be very difficult to judge the value of a particular course from a particular university. It’s confusing for employers as there are more higher education institutions than ever before and so many different subjects,” he explains.
Gilleard says that HR has always been a competitive area and that today’s employers are very particular about the graduates they recruit.
“When I used to recruit for HR roles, I’d usually look for a CIPD or post-graduate qualification. I’d be less swayed if they’d only done 50% of their course on HR. I think fewer employers are prepared to take a gamble on graduate recruits now, so graduates have really got to know their stuff.”
He points out that four in 10 AGR members were left with unfilled jobs last year despite the fact that there was an average of 30 graduates going for each vacancy.
“Most employers invest heavily in graduate training schemes and they want to know that the investment will pay off,” says Gilleard.
Richard Fuller, HR director at investment firm Threadneedle City, does not believe that mixed courses, such as HR and waste management, have much value in business.
“The real problem with lots of HR degree courses is the lack of practical knowledge and experience,” he says. “Students should be encouraged to undertake relevant work experience in their summer holidays or gap years. Students and graduate trainees have got to realise that learning the basics about HR and HR processes is critical if they are to get credibility. Too many want to run before they can walk.”
Any degree will do
However, only a quarter of AGR members actually specify that they require a particular degree disciplines from their graduate recruits.
“Unless they are recruiting for a very niche area, such as science or engineering, employers will usually accept degrees from a range of disciplines,” Gilleard notes.
It seems employers still value the so-called transferable skills associated with completing a degree, such as time management, perseverance and working on your own initiative. And these skills are, of course, applicable to every degree course, regardless of the subject matter.
Graham White, HR director at Westminster City Council, is a case in point.
He says: “Before I realised that you could study HR with dance I’d never considered the possibility of adding [dancers] Gregory Hinds, Nijinsky or even my favourite Darcey Bussell to my HR team, but why not? HR graduates need to be ready to roll their sleeves up, be given demanding objectives and be held accountable if they fail. I don’t care where they learn the skills of tenacity, perseverance or resilience.”
Sara Reading, senior graduate recruitment manager at accountancy giant KPMG, also claims that the degree subject is irrelevant.
“The course discipline doesn’t really matter. What is important to us is that a candidate is committed to a career in HR and can work in a complex and challenging business environment,” she says.
Vanessa Robinson, resourcing and organisation adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), points out that a high number of students do a degree in a subject they’re interested in, not because it’s specifically relevant to their future career.
“So many degrees aren’t directly vocational and studying HR will give students a really good grounding for business, looking at the people management aspect and how a business operates. HR is a pretty broad topic and not everyone that studies it is looking to work in HR,” she says.
Most of the more extreme combined degree courses (see box) are not accredited by the CIPD, although some are recognised at masters level.
Reading thinks that having a passion for the degree subject is a big plus.
“One of the most important aspects of choosing a degree course is for the student to be interested in the topic, as they are more likely to succeed, so if a course really appeals to a student, then it is meeting the need of an employer,” she says.
White goes even further and believes that offering combined honours in HR and an unrelated subject could actually enhance the degree’s value.
“Majoring in HR with an unrelated minor subject is a great idea and long overdue,” he says. “HR is not magic, it can be learned by anyone. But what is much harder to implant into HR graduates is the added element of common sense. Combining HR with another subject can only increase their value to an organisation.”
Some of the combined honour degrees, such as HR and dance or HR and sport do, however, prepare graduates for a career in a niche sector, but how employable are they at the end of the course?
Viv Kinnair, associate dean at Sunderland University, says that only a small number (she estimates less than 10%) actually take HR management with another subject.
“There are dozens of joint honour degrees available, but in practice most students stay within the business school subjects – although we have a number doing HRM with sport and media studies. HRM is just as popular as business studies or marketing now,” Kinnair says.
Sunderland University encourages students to do work placements with local employers and offers CIPD-accredited masters degrees. Students are keen to see a return on investment and usually choose a subject with a view to becoming employed at the end of the course.
“They’re not looking to learn just for the sake of learning. They want to know what they’re being trained for and what sort of transferable skills they are going to have when they graduate,” Kinnair explains.
Mark Ferguson, spokesman for Northampton University, which offers 31 other subjects in conjunction with HR, says that the breadth of joint honours on offer at Northampton is good news for employers.
“Some 88% of joint honours HR management leavers were in employment just six months’ after completing their course last year,” he says, “so our courses are clearly meeting the needs of employers.”
Perhaps it would surprise Margaret Hodge to know that the stigma of ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ is fading fast and that HR managers are so enlightened in their approach to recruitment.
Anyone for a joint?
There are 168 universities and higher education institutes in the UK today and 1.8 million full- or part-time students. Some of the weird and wonderful joint honours degrees on offer include:
- Abuse studies and HR management (Manchester Metropolitan University)
- Dance with HR management (Sunderland University)
- HR management and music (University of Keele)
- Festival management and HR (Napier University Edinburgh)
- Waste management and HR (Northampton University)
- Criminology and HR management (Sunderland University)