Qualifications One-stop Shop

This blog has been compiled from earlier versions, and is brought together here to provide a one-stop shop for our policy on qualifications in selection criteria for jobs.

Crucially, we address two of most commonly encountered excuses that organisations use to continue the use of qualifications on selection criteria: that making a criterion ‘desirable’ rather than essential, or also accepting vaguely defined ‘equivalent experience’, makes credentialism any more equitable. We firmly believe that they do not. 

Introduction and Context

There has long been an assumption that many museum jobs are graduate jobs, suitable only for those who hold undergraduate degrees. It is obvious that studying at university is a great place to develop skills such as research, analysis, source criticism and citation, and specialist knowledge in a more in-depth way than A Levels, Highers, or other school-leaving qualifications. Many of these skills can indeed be very useful for certain museum roles, and so it is not altogether unsurprising that degree requirements and museum job specifications have had a long association. This has meant that demands for degrees have sometimes become a ‘default’ requirement, and this can be problematic.

Similarly, many museum jobs have also had an additional requirement for a post-graduate qualification, often a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. No one can seriously doubt the value of studying museums and heritage within an academic context. Museums are complex and diverse entities with long and interesting histories, and they warrant dedicated study and enquiry – and that this can prepare some students well for some aspects of a career in the industry. Equally, no one can doubt that the graduates of such programmes are passionate and dedicated, and could be just the sort of people that museums need. It must also be acknowledged that many will have made serious sacrifices to get enrolled onto such programmes. Yet when an MA becomes a ‘default’ selection requirement for museum jobs, it is even more problematic.

This is why we advocate for the removal of *all* qualifications from selection criteria altogether. As our Manifesto states:

1.1 University Degrees, both undergraduate or postgraduate, must not be required as criteria on personal specifications. Where skills traditionally derived from academia are deemed a requirement for a role (such as subject specialism or aptitude at research, analysis, and source criticism and citation) these specific skills and knowledge areas should be required rather than blanket qualifications.

We will set out below why we believe this is a pressing imperative. 

Inequitable Access to Education

Undergraduate degrees in the UK are expensive. As of 2023, annual tuition fees for a full-time course can be as high as £9,250. Given that many British students chose to study away from their family homes (at least those who have them), there are also significant costs related to living expenses. While student loans are widely available, many graduates risk leaving their courses with debts of between £35,000 – £40,000. Postgraduate programmes are also very expensive, and not everyone can afford them. The University of Leicester charge £10,900 for their Museum Studies MA, while UCL are after £12,500 on top of a non-refundable £90 application fee.

Beyond issues of financial exclusion, it is also important to note that not everyone will have the life circumstance to permit study, even on a part-time programme. Some need to work full-time in paid employment, some will have family commitments, some will have caring responsibilities, and some will have disabilities that make learning far more challenging than for others. Other people, who may otherwise flourish in a museum career, may simply find that studying at university level is just not for them. For all sorts of reasons, access to university education in the UK is far from equitable.

To insist on one, academic, pathway as the sole prerequisite for a museum career is to severely, and unfairly, limit the pool of available candidates. It runs a real risk of damaging the sector by filling job vacancies with people – however able – with a uniform and non-diverse set of experiences and backgrounds.

We need people who don’t fit the mould, and who can bring bold and brave fresh-thinking into museums. We need a sector workforce which is as diverse as the nation’s society, so that museums can speak to, for and from everyone. There must be many routes into the sector, and not just one. At Fair Museum Jobs, we will challenge recruitment practices which insist on the ‘one route’ model, and we will celebrate and champion practices that seek to make the sector a more inclusive place.

Other routes are equally valid

We have spoken much on the value of university education, but it is imperative to understand that academia is not the only place to learn the skills and gain the knowledge necessary to successfully pursue a successful career in museums. Practical, on-the-job experience can be just as valuable. That can be gained through a whole range of places and situations, whether through paid or voluntary experience within the sector, through traineeships or apprenticeships, or through transferable skills developed outside of museums.

While degrees are a good way to impart specific skills (research, writing etc.) or specialist subject knowledge, an academic environment is not the only one in which these competencies can be developed. Recruiters who seek such skills in candidates too often ask for academic qualifications rather than the skills themselves.

Candidates who have these skills but who do not have these qualifications are either heavily disadvantaged or else totally excluded from these roles by recruiters insisting on one particular path to employment, at the expense of many other valid ones. This arbitrary filtering is far more likely to affect candidates from already disadvantaged backgrounds and favour those with privilege, which has a marked impact on the makeup of the sector’s workforce and seriously precludes its diversity. 

Making things fairer: Removing qualifications from selection criteria

For all the reasons given above, we firmly believe that if a recruiter wants candidates with a specific set of skills or knowledge that may be gained from a university education, then they should ask for just those skills or experiences *alone*.

This need not be burdensome on those who write job descriptions. Where a curatorial role may have been advertised with the requirement for a degree in a particular area of history, this could instead be broken down into a requirement for knowledge of that area of history, together with any skills such as research proficiency. This could allow a candidate with those skills, but without a degree, to demonstrate their aptitude for the role. It would also in no way disadvantage graduates, who could similarly demonstrate such aptitude through reference to their studies.

Similarly, a collections management role, which may have previously asked for a museum studies degree, could easily break that requirement down into knowledge or experience of relevant areas such as cataloguing, loans management or object handling. 

These changes are easy to enact and go a long way to removing some of the many barriers of access that exist for some candidates trying to break into our sector. We believe that any museum which purports to value fairness, inclusion, and diversity (and really, they all should) must look to make these changes in the way that they recruit. We at Fair Museum Jobs will continue to advocate for these changes, challenge organisations who we see as perpetuating unfair practices, and celebrate those who stand by their values and put meaningful change into place.

Essential or Desirable?

Throughout our campaigning against credentialism since our foundation in 2018, we have encountered the same fallacy time and time again. That is that simply relegation a degree requirement from ‘essential’ to ‘desirable’ will somehow remove all of the barriers to access we have described above.

We could not disagree more with falsehood any harder than we do.

If there is a criterion that not everyone can reasonably have, making it ‘essential’ will exclude totally some candidates from a job role who could well otherwise be highly suited to it. Making that criterion ‘desirable’ will not totally exclude such candidates, but it will strongly disadvantage them in their application. This is certainly no fix, and we find neither situation acceptable.

The argument that ‘desirable’ is less bad than ‘essential’ because it throws ‘unqualified’ candidates a bone and floats the possibility that they may be considered for a vacancy is at best unhelpful, and at worst patronising and disingenuous, as we are always reminded of by our friends at @NonGradsWelcome,

As we have said before, and as we will continue to say, our mission is never to make little of people’s achievement at university or the sacrifices that they made to get there. It is instead about accepting and promoting the idea that there could and must be many routes into the sector, and not just one (traditional) one. Part of that process is challenging lazy ‘quick fixes’ to the structural inequality that continues to have a presence in our sector.

Or Equivalent Experience?

Another fallacy that we have frequently encountered is that to simply allow ‘or equivalent experience’ in addition to a degree requirement will similarly, and easily, make a role equitable.

To explain why this is not so, we should ask “what is equivalent experience to a degree?” That is difficult to quantify, and different people will have different opinions. Some recruiters have attempted such quantifications, but examples such as five years’ professional experience seem both disproportionate and dangerously close to age discrimination. Recruiters who leave out any attempt at quantification also run the risk of allowing whatever prejudices they may have a free rein, and candidates are being asked to justify that they meet a criterion without knowing its bounds.

The other problem is more subtle, but still an issue. Often, qualifications are the very first line on a job specification. Even if equivalent experience is also accepted, what sort of message is being given to prospective candidates who do not have degrees? That they are unwelcome, or that their skills and background will not be respected and valued? We have seen examples where candidates have responded to job adverts on social media saying things like ‘this would be my dream job, but I’m not qualified for it’ because of a degree requirement even when equivalent experience is also stated as an acceptable alternative.

Since early 2021, we have changed our Manifesto to reflect the above concerns. Since then, we have asked that recruiters do not ask for degrees altogether. When it comes to selection criteria, we reiterate: if a recruiter wants candidates with a specific set of skills or knowledge that may typically be imparted by a university education, then they should ask only for those skills or experiences alone. Degree requirements may seem like an easy short-hand, but it is lazy, it is exclusionary and discriminatory, and we really need to move on from this if we want (as we must) the sector to be as diverse and inclusive as it possibly can be. 

Note: Our Manifesto and blogs remain dynamic, and we will make changes as and when we learn more about developments in attempts to make recruitment fairer. The qualifications section of our Manifesto was last updated in February 2021. You can read more about the changes we made, and the reasons why, here.


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