Britain Is Taking School Snobbery to New Heights

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Does your alma mater dictate your potential in life? The UK government thinks so. Britain is offering two-year work visas to recent graduates of what it claims are the world’s top universities to attract the “brightest and best” at the start of their careers.

To qualify, you must have graduated within the past five years (with a bachelor’s or post-graduate qualification) from a university that appears in the government’s rankings list(1). In the 2021 list, there are 20 US colleges, as well as universities from Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, France, Sweden and Switzerland. Graduates of lesser institutions (say, Brown University or Dartmouth College, two highly selective Ivy League schools) will have to try their luck with the new points-based immigration system or some other route.

To some mandarin sitting in the Home Office or Treasury, the logic must have looked undeniable. Boris Johnson promised that post-Brexit Britain would be a magnet for talent and investment. He needs the economic growth that brings if he’s to deliver on his big agenda to rebalance, or level up, the British economy. 

Labor markets are tight, wages are rising. The UK is a nice place to live. Why not put out a welcome mat for the world’s best and brightest, using rankings as a filter? After all, these are schools that receive more applicants, attract better students and can be more selective. Their diplomas are the ultimate shorthand for ability, right?

It’s far from being that simple. University prestige to a large extent reflects high scores on standardized tests, which are seen as predictors of academic performance and career potential. And yet what these universities select for and what employers or investors look for aren’t entirely aligned.

As almost any employer will tell you, beyond a certain level of education, what matters is effort, attitude, time and adaptability. Employers are also looking for more diversity of background these days. 

One study found that while graduates of elite universities get paid more than those from lower-ranked schools, they generally don’t perform all that much better. In tracking 28,339 students from 294 universities, the authors found that alumni of the highest-ranked universities performed only nominally better than others, and only on some areas of performance.

The researchers also found graduates from top universities were more prone to conflict, displayed less commitment to the team and tended to identify more with grads of top-ranking universities than with team members from different backgrounds. For employers, such qualitative considerations are as important.

These graduates also cost more. That small differential in performance may be worth it for some companies; for others, not so much. 

There are other studies that cast doubt on the notion that it’s the institution that matters most. A landmark 2002 paper by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that students who have the same scores on standardized tests can expect to earn roughly the same income throughout their career, regardless of where they went to college. A later repeat of that study mostly confirmed that, but also found that women who go to top schools tend to work more and so have higher career earnings; these schools can also make a real difference for minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the main, though, individual traits trump institutional branding. College experience can also vary enormously not just by place but by course of study and level of engagement. The UK scheme completely ignores this. It doesn’t matter whether you studied art history or data science, whether you graduated summa cum laude or scraped by. The key is where you studied — brand is everything. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak (Oxford University, Stanford University), who launched the program with Home Secretary Priti Patel (Keele University and University of Essex), said the new scheme “means that the UK will grow as a leading international hub for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.” Really? 

If you look at the CEOs of the top 10 Fortune 100 companies, their alma maters are an assortment from University of Arkansas (Doug McMillion of Walmart) to Princeton (Jeff Bezos) to Boston College (CVS Health’s Karen Lynch). In 2019, 89% of Fortune 100 CEOs with undergraduate degrees graduated from non-Ivy League schools, with 47% coming from state schools, many of which won’t be on the UK’s high-potential individual list. Look at Inc.’s list of the fastest-growing private companies and CEO backgrounds are even more diverse. 

While UK university admissions are nearly exclusively based on exam results (with some allowances for background to increase admissions of disadvantaged students), that is not the case in the US. Almost half of white students admitted to Harvard between 2009 and 2014 were legacies (students whose parents or close family attended Harvard), recruited athletes, children of faculty and staff, or applicants whose relatives have donated to Harvard, according to a study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research. They may well be the future innovators that Britain needs, but that’s far from clear. 

The global ranking system also largely prefers research-focused universities rather than those that excel at teaching or have other attributes that translate into workplace advantages, such as pre-professional clubs for entrepreneurs. 

Britain’s own education system is so exam-focused from such a young age that it discourages risk-taking and experimentation, and penalizes failure. But the new visa scheme won’t compensate for that or for declining standards at many British universities, which are beset by underfunding, poor teacher morale, grade inflation and outdated courses. 

The problem isn’t in wanting the best global talent, but in failing to take that seriously. Why 50 universities, and not 100, or 500?

We recently celebrated with friends whose newly graduated son (from a prestigious but not UK-defined global 50 university) is headed to a job at Palantir Technologies that’s paying far more than most Wall Street analyst gigs out of college. Many of his classmates have landed jobs with top employers. The UK government should be focused on making it easier for UK-based companies to compete for all talent rather than prescribing them a narrow list of approved top universities. 

One could argue that even if clumsily designed, the program sends the right message about Global Britain. It doesn’t. By emphasizing brand names and credentialism, it perpetuates the elitism at the heart of Britain’s own social mobility problem. Some of the country’s most inspiring stories of innovation and leadership come despite, not because of, such a system. 

Don’t get me wrong. Top-tier universities are places of excellence where those lucky enough to be admitted can emerge well-educated and prepared for the world of work. They will always have cachet for employers. But they hardly have a monopoly on those qualities, and they draw most heavily from an already elite group. 

I’m all for increasing the talent pipeline into Britain, too. But at a time when Britain faces a severe shortage of unskilled labor and the need to improve skills at home, Boris Johnson’s government is focusing on the wrong pool of potential.

(1) The list changes depending on the year of graduation and is based on schools that appear in the top 50 of at least two specified ranking lists, including the Times Higher Education world university rankings.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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