Chris Marshall: Encouraging university alternative is to be hailed

When one of the country's biggest publishing companies announced last month that it was dropping the requirement for job applicants to have degrees, it won praise for a move which is both bold and eminently sensible.
Penguin Random House should be congratulated. Picture: John DevlinPenguin Random House should be congratulated. Picture: John Devlin
Penguin Random House should be congratulated. Picture: John Devlin

Penguin Random House said it wanted to attract candidates from more diverse backgrounds to an industry which - like sections of the media - is almost uniformly white and middle class.

Yet while elements of the private sector are beginning to move away from the insistence on university-educated staff, there is a worrying trend moving in the opposite direction in the public sphere.

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The introduction of nursing degrees has been blamed for staff shortages in some parts of the NHS, as well as criticism from some about levels of care.

Recently, the College of Policing called for all police recruits to have a university education for a job which is now of “degree-level complexity”.

While the move would only apply to England and Wales, it would undoubtedly lead to similar calls north of the border.

Writing in Police Professional, a weekly journal, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill described the plans as a “retrograde step”.

Mr MacAskill said rising the bar higher risked reducing the pool of available recruits and making the service less representative of the communities it is there to serve.

He said: “Rather than moving the educational criteria ever higher and reducing the pool of potential recruits, it would surely be better to consider reducing it for some entrants in exceptional cases.

“Those cases would be to ensure that officers are, indeed, from as well as for all our communities.”

Under the current Police Scotland selection process, recruits must pass the Standard Entrance Test (SET), which is made up of questions on language, numbers and information handling. There is also a fitness assessment centring on the notorious “bleep test”.

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Graduates should be encouraged to join the police force - we need the brightest and best to tackle the growing threats of cybercrime and terrorism.

But the police force should absolutely not become another part of our society only open to those with a undergraduate degree.

A police force can only operate effectively with the support of the community it seeks to protect. Anything that undermines that trust, undermines policing.

A force made up exclusively of those privileged enough to go to university would not represent Scotland in all its diversity.

More importantly, however, the introduction of an academic barrier risks writing off many recruits with plenty to offer.

As many thousands of university graduates struggling in dead-end jobs will themselves attest, there is more to being employable than the piece of paper issued after four years in higher education.

One of the achievements of Tony Blair’s Labour governments was dramatically increasing the number of people going into higher education. However, that also gave lie to the idea that you are nothing without a degree.

Companies such as Penguin Random House should be congratulated for encouraging an alternative to university. Police forces across the UK should take note.