Where you went could determine where you go in business

Research appears to confirm that many potential employers put more weight on which university you attended than on what you actually studied there, writes Richard Cree

September 5, 2013

Plenty of column inches have been filled in recent months examining bizarre aspects of Mark Carney’s life. During the recruitment process for his new role as Governor of the Bank of England, it’s unlikely his prospective employer, George Osborne, was concerned about his ability to wear shorts well or the modern-art tastes of his wife. He would have been interested in how well he performed in last job, heading up Canada’s central bank. But was he also comforted by the fact that Carney is Harvard and Oxford educated? From the moment the Canadian became the first foreigner to take on the job, much has been made of the impact his time at Oxford had on him. But what part does university education play in the modern business environment? And does it matter where you get that education? This first ranking of the institutions behind the Fortune Global 500 CEOs, THE Alma Mater Index, suggests that it does.

Perhaps most striking is the benefit of studying, as Carney did, at Harvard. The Boston-based institution comfortably tops the Index by every measure. The debate as to the return on educational investment is an old and ongoing one. Plenty of academic research shows a correlation between future earnings and the quality of university attended. But how does where you study affect a business career?

Regardless of what you study, the presence of the right institution on your CV reassures potential employers about your likely aptitude for the job. Mark Freebairn, a partner at top City headhunters Odgers Berndtson, agrees with this. “There is an elite group of top universities that stand out. If you have been to Harvard, Oxbridge or INSEAD, that has an impact.” As a headhunter, Freebairn says that no matter what level the post he is looking to fill, he and the employer both look at where a candidate studied. “A lower-class degree from a top institution is better than a first-class degree from a less well-respected one,” he argues. “For prospective employers there is comfort in the fact that someone has been selected ahead of a lot of other applicants. It means they are obviously bright. Passing that selection process is an endorsement for employers.”

Professor Steven Haberman, dean of Cass Business School, part of City University London (ranked 89), agrees: “Highly ranked universities are much more selective in their intakes, so if you got into a high-profile institution and graduated, it says something meaningful about your skills and potential. This can only be a plus on your CV. But it is just one element of what makes a strong CV.”

For all the soul-searching that prospective undergraduates go through to choose the best course to study, often with one eye on picking a subject that will do the most for their future career, where you study has much more impact than what you study. The Alma Mater Index doesn’t suggest that any one topic or type of course leads to success. There are plenty of specialist business schools on the list, but most universities listed here are generalist institutions offering a wide range of faculties and subjects. This supports the view that the school matters more than the subject. One caveat is that success in mining and engineering companies, which form the bulk of the world’s largest organisations, seems to depend on having a related specialist degree.

Freebairn concurs that, save for these highly vocational courses, recruiters are not concerned about the subject studied. “It is institution first, quality of degree next – what they studied comes a long way behind. Most degrees are meant to be up to a comparable standard so a 2:1 in history is better than a 2:2 in law.”

This view is further supported by research from the Centre for Economics of Education, which identifies a typical average wage premium of up to 10 per cent for graduates from a Russell Group university compared with those from a modern one. A spokesman for the Russell Group adds that the most recent research confirms that the average salary six months after graduation from Russell Group universities was £22,399, more than £3,500 higher than the average for the rest of the sector. “Graduates face an extremely competitive job market, but it is clear that a degree from the right institution remains a valuable investment,” she says.

According to Freebairn, this head start really matters to future prospects. “While people still look at where a candidate went to university, and the quality of degree and what they studied, by the time someone is 45 with 20 years’ experience, it is less relevant. But it has an impact in the first three to five years. By then the advantage is established and it is difficult for laggards to catch up.”

Haberman agrees: “A very important thing, after where you study and how well you do, is what you do with the skills and knowledge you have acquired and how you demonstrate what you’ve learned.”

He adds that leading institutions also give students opportunities to build a network. “This can be with classmates, lecturers and alumni, but also at the high-profile events the best schools hold, which are attended by business associates.” He says that Cass, which has invested heavily in its alumni network in recent years and boosted its events programme, “regularly” hears from alumni that they have “relied heavily” on the network of students, alumni and other business figures during subsequent careers.

Jim Aisner, director of media and public relations for Harvard Business School, says this is certainly the case for Harvard students. “Needless to say, we think HBS adds tremendous substantive value to a person’s higher education. We have extraordinary faculty, students, facilities and a global alumni network,” he says. “Students here learn from one other (the average entering age here is , so everyone has work experience from all sorts of backgrounds) as well as their professors. Because students are put in the shoes of decision-making executives every day, the process is an education in judgment as well as one that focuses on competence and character. Our mission is ‘educating leaders who make a difference in the world’.”

The top 10 institutions in the Alma Mater Index offer a good representation of the entire index, certainly in terms of type and location of institution. Four are located in the US, three in France, two in Japan and one in Korea. But, as already mentioned, the most striking thing is the utter dominance of Harvard at number one. By every measure Harvard beats its nearest rival twice over. Just over 10 per cent (51) of the CEOs running Fortune Global 500 companies have a degree from a US institution. Of these, half (25) count Harvard as their alma mater. The combined revenue of companies led by a chief executive with at least one Harvard qualification is a staggering $1,548 billion (£988 billion). Its nearest rival in terms of financial clout is the French École Polytechnique, whose alumni run companies worth $917 billion. By contrast, the University of Oxford (the highest-ranked British institution on the Index) claims alumni responsible for revenues of $268 billion, while City University London lays claim to its CEOs running companies in the Fortune Global 500 worth $85 billion.

There is an interesting split between East and West on the list. More than half of the institutions on the Index are in North America and Europe. Japan also fares well, with the University of Tokyo ranked second in the index. It awarded 14 degrees to 13 Fortune Global 500 CEOs who together look after companies worth $756 billion. Perhaps predictably, Chinese institutions also figure in large numbers, but without any individual one yet making the top 10. The most notable is Tsinghua University, which is ranked at 13, and has trained seven of the Fortune Global 500 CEOs, together responsible for companies worth in excess of $300 billion. It is likely that future editions of this index will include more institutions from emerging economies. The combined offering to this inaugural index from institutions in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies is already significant, with degrees awarded to 47 CEOs (almost 9 per cent of the total), with revenues between them worth £2,592 billion.

So in a global business landscape, do academic institutions need global reputations to have any real impact? Haberman says they do: “Academic institutions that want to operate on a global level need to be known internationally to attract the best faculty and students, and make an impact with their research.”

Simon Calver, CEO, Mothercare

Simon Calver is 18 months into the biggest challenge of his career to date, turning around the previously struggling Stock Exchange-listed high-street retailer Mothercare. Every day he says he draws on things learned at university but also in his career since.

He studied computer systems at Hull University (“famously described by Blackadder as ‘one of the great universities’,” he points out, although Blackadder was trying to catch out a German spy). And his approach to the businesses he has worked for since, from Deloitte to Pepsi to Dell to LoveFilm, has been informed by skills he picked up at university. “It’s about understanding the systems and key metrics that make a business tick,” he explains. “You have to be able to break a business down to work out what makes it work. Being able to work out what you need to measure is essential.”

Calver adds that he also gained huge amounts after graduation from his time on the Unilever Companies Management Development Scheme, the highly regarded graduate management-training scheme. “I derived as much of importance to my career at Unilever as I did at university.”

The power of loyalty

Among the top 10 CEOs (see PDF below), one common trait stands out when examining their CVs. Sadly, it has less to do with their education and more to do with their post-graduation careers. The majority of the top 10 CEOs are loyal company men who have stuck with the same organisation either since graduation or from very early on in their careers.

What this means for the importance of education and where a person studied is hard to evaluate, but clearly there is a lot to be said for knowing your way around an organisation and having the persistence to climb the corporate ladder.

The same is true for the top 10 female CEOs, (see PDF below), although here there is slightly more of a trend towards a business, finance, economics and generalist degree, rather than more specific engineering qualifications, which dominate the male top 10 (although that is likely to be effect rather than cause).

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