Friday, January 11, 2013

Why Some Countries Care More About Degrees

Alan Punches
Photo by Beth Punches
In your quest to be an expat, there is always the question of whether or not you're going to need a university degree to move abroad. For many fields, such as engineering or medicine, of course you'll need a degree. For other fields, such as marketing or IT, many people are self-taught and a degree is not necessary. However, when I wrote about Germany struggling to find workers for the Blue Card program, I thought (and still think), that the Germans were premature in worrying about it. However, a German friend of mine got in touch with me and painted a slightly different picture.

Germany, amongst other things, tremendously values a university degree. Many otherwise qualified candidates for jobs are overlooked because of this. I have one friend who has a over a decade of top-notch marketing experience and a very strong CV who was turned down for jobs in Germany just for that lack of a degree. You could be genetically engineered as the perfect fit for a given job in Berlin only to be turned down over that lack of a degree. Many, many people are frustrated by this.

Here in France, it's often the same problem. A university degree is very highly valued and as many people will tell you: if you don't have a degree, even if you do get a job, you can forget about significant career advancement (note: not all companies are this foolish, but it's a problem here). For many companies, management positions are reserved for people with pieces of paper and you're less likely to get a work permit without one.

In the UK, it was different. Nobody cared if I had a degree. Nobody cared if I had a degree in the US (I have an Associate's Degree, but big whoop). What they cared about was results and I've got a strong CV showing results.

So what's the difference? What's so different about the German and French cultures that many companies prefer education over experience?

I suspect I know what's going on and after chatting with my wife, she confirmed it: university education is so dirt cheap in Germany and France that if you don't have a degree, the question "why not?" is immediately raised. Clearly something must be wrong with you if you didn't take that virtually free education, right? In both the US and the UK, graduation rates have been dropping the past few years and this is due to a combination of a sluggish world economy and astronomical tuition fees. Here in France, however, my wife paid about €2,000 a year to obtain a Master's Degree in French Law. German universities today often charge around €500 per semester.

Contrast that with US tuition rate hikes:
To attend an in-state public college [in the USA] for the 2012-13 academic year, the average overall cost (or "sticker price") for students who don't receive any financial aid rose 3.8% to a record $22,261, according to the report.
Average tuition fees in the UK are only £8,678.36, but given that average salary in the UK is £26,500, that's a significant percentage of annual income.

Perversely, Germans and French are less likely to have a university degree than the British or Americans. Perhaps students value it less because it's so inexpensive (I've heard this before, but only anecdotally).

What about your country? What are your university rates like and how do employers view a university degree?


  1. Australia has cheap education and one of the highest levels of tertiary education anywhere. A German here was surprised that university graduates weren't that smart, on the whole, presumably an effect of the current uptake rates in the two countries. They also felt that their missing degree was judged more harshly in Australia than back home, although that doesn't extend to IT

    1. That's very interesting. So it again suggests that inexpensive university degrees will lead to employers valuing them more.

  2. Interesting question.

    Here in Brazil there is a mix of things: in some companies there is a small list of "good" universities and if you dont fit it, you're out. IT Certifications (oracle, java, microsoft, even to work in QA) is a fever too, does not matter if you have +7 years of experience. But you can find a good company ho does not care about degree if you have open source experience, for example.

    But is very rare in a interview job ask something about algorithms or operational systems. The most common is "how you can do X in language Y" or "what means the keyword Z". But most companies work as a "software factory".

  3. Perversely, Germans and French are less likely to have a university degree than the British or Americans. Perhaps students value it less because it's so expensive (I've heard this before, but only anecdotally).
    I think that's also an accreditation issue. My impression is that the minimum quality for colleges and universities are higher in Continental Europe, even if the maximum quality may be higher in the US and UK.

  4. I can't comment about Germany as I've not been directly involved in that system.

    In the UK University education was historically very cheap and it took effort to qualify but only a small percentage of the population did it. Sadly industry and government didn't care, so for decades there was a constant brain drain to countries that did care. More recently the government drastically increased student numbers, standards fell through the floor and costs went through the roof. A British degree is now expensive to get but virtually worthless. Employers still don't care about your degree and as the conditions have changed I wouldn't blame it on the current state of affairs, because I believe they have never cared.

    I worked in the US in two universities and while there were some very clever and hard working people there, it is also fair to say that many of the student were bone idle and their attitude was that they had paid for their degree so they were not going to work for it too. I can therefore imaging that an employer in the US would not value a University education specifically well.

    My better half is French and she says that education is just better and better respected in France than in the UK. While I would not have felt that myself as I went through the system in the UK (at a very good state school and a top rank University) I now feel my education was an exception rather than the rule and I can see her point...

  5. It's something I worry about with Germany, even being in IT, where I am near the top of my field (non-management) with over 10 years experience, where in the U.S. that gets me a six-figure income, but I don't know how Germans will respond since I don't have a degree (or debt! ;) Anyone have info in that arena? Do they eat up Certifications?