Does academic intelligence = intelligence?

Originally published at on May 13, 2015.

Higher education is seen as the end of our childhood. Something that acts as a ‘funnel’ to our hopeful career success. Ostensibly it is the essential step that must be taken in order to have a truly successful working life.

However, in a time of rapid industrial change, is it time we inspect the value that education can drive for entrepreneurs more critically? After all, these are going to be the people directing the companies of tomorrow, which every consumer will trust to run companies ethically and efficiently.

There is a paradigm within education that has puzzled me since I started my first year at University. I studied Management and Entrepreneurship, and I paid around £9,000 per year to be there. That is cheap compared to the high proportion of international students that our University attracts with some paying much more than this sum.

These are incredible amounts to pay to be at an institution to sit exams and study a specific subject, which is what I saw a lot of students are exclusively paying for. The problem this creates is that we have students with degrees who have been entirely reclusive in their study of their subject, who by default outcompete people without degrees in the job market or even people with lower class degrees who have filled their time at university with extra curriculum activities.

I find myself wondering, which student would be more competent when faced with a real task in a company? Someone with emotional intelligence or someone with academic intelligence?

I would concede that this is not relevant to all subjects. Certainly, more vocational degrees such as engineering require a level of knowledge that is best learned through study and practical education. But for aspiring entrepreneurs, education beyond the fundamentals such as finance and accounting seems superfluous.

No amount of PowerPoint presentations will form someone with empathy, interpersonal proficiency or the ability to deal with a situation where an angry client needs to be reassured. Short of a profound shift in the way we teach entrepreneurship, and other similar subjects, I believe these skills come from dealing with real world situations head on.

This is important because the job market has changed dramatically. The Economist published an article in 2014 with a statistic saying that “50% of the jobs we know today will be robotised by 2030”. That’s staggering. It means that the skill set we need for modern jobs is changing profoundly. It makes emotional intelligence far more valuable than it used to be.

So, can we change our perception of intelligence?

Ultimately, I think the issue lies in our employment system, which filters our judgment about how to assess a person’s skills. Some companies will disregard applications from anyone who doesn’t have a degree and rapidly this is becoming anyone who doesn’t have a Masters qualification, an increasing trend as we enter into a perpetuating spiral of ‘survival of the fittest’ (if everyone has a degree, no one does).

Having met people who study incredibly difficult subjects (academically speaking) such as mathematics or science, I find it hard to support the view that intelligence is centered on academic performance, and how this somehow acts to define our competence in a potential job.

Sir Ken Robinson describes how, in school, we are ‘benignly’ led away from ‘softer’ skills such as art, theatre or music, in place of what we view to be more academic, or even ‘useful’ skills. Contrast this with the fact that we no longer live in a society demanding managers and leaders to have the same skills that they needed in the post-industrial period, and where an understanding of art and culture is incredibly important to our society. Jim Davies writes in his book ‘Riveted’ that…

‘The creation and consumption of art compromises a major portion of our lives. Young Americans spend about seven and a half hours every day consuming artistic media.’

Overlook the ‘softer’ subjects and the skills that come with them at your own peril.

In my opinion, the movement to a more holistic, personality-centric way of judging candidates such as test centres is a great thing. I understand the constraints on companies’ cost, meaning ultimately candidates have to be axed by some objective measure, but I believe the real solution lies in finding cost-effective subjective judgment techniques, where we are able to include personal experience at the first assessment hurdle, instead of simply axing anyone without a degree.

In the current climate, it’s key that students continue to strive to do the best they can in university as they are ultimately forced to live in the paradigm that was created all those centuries ago. However, for entrepreneurs and managers (and for a lot of other future roles), we have to look further and think how we can generate real world experience that will truly improve our competence and intelligence.