Industry links must boost graduate employability

University leaders have said that they expect to work more closely with industry in the future, but universities need to make clear how those links will benefit graduates, says Ronel Lehmann 

October 14, 2018
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Asking the leaders of 200 world-ranked universities for their views about where the sector will be in 2030 makes for fascinating reading. And this year’s THE University Leaders Survey offers some particularly interesting insight.

I work with graduates on a daily basis, helping them to become ready for work and supporting them in careers that both interest and inspire them. My role sits between the education world and the business world, which gives me a unique perspective.

I was therefore particularly interested in the economic driver section of the survey, which examined industry collaboration. This highlighted that “all respondents expect to be working more closely with industry by 2030 and making a greater economic contribution”.

I couldn’t agree more with this but am keen to know exactly how universities are planning to “be working more closely with industry by 2030”, when at present they are often rarely interested in looking beyond their students’ graduation ceremonies.

Like almost every school and college, the main focus for HE providers is ensuring the highest possible position in league tables. The reasoning for this is financial: the higher the ranking, the easier it is to recruit the next cohort of students.

Institutions are even resorting to offering their prospective students a range of incentives in return for their business, such as iPads, cash and other tempting goods. But the focus is simply on the course and the qualification, with little mention of what may happen post-graduation.

If only universities would devote the same time and resources that they put into recruiting students to ensuring that their graduate alumni is prepared, fit and ready for the world of work.

Universities need to be incentivised to change their focus. They are required by government to track how many students are in employment after one month, three months, six months and a year. These statistics are often pretty meaningless in isolation.

What is needed is clearer, destination-led league tables that show how many graduates from each institution move into gainful employment. This would give prospective students the capability to view the degree courses that are most likely to get them employed.

The universities and courses ranked the highest would be hugely attractive to prospective students, safe in the knowledge that graduates were likely to go straight into great careers. Surely that is a more valuable marker than the current, qualification-focused league tables?

In our changing and competitive world, a degree is no longer any sort of guarantee for getting a good job. There is much more to it. Universities need to reach out to industry and create better relationships with employers. This will give their students access to the world of work and a better understanding of what skills are required to make them a good employee.

As is the case with most schools and colleges, careers advice at universities can be hit or miss. Students should be treated as individuals. The ability to network effectively, both in a human and a digital way, is crucial but rarely taught.

Better links with industry would make this far easier, with experts on hand to advise individual students with up-to-date advice, relevant to the industries that interest them. With the high cost of university, students simply should expect to come out with more than a qualification.

Academia is at the core of higher education and what university is about. Yet this doesn’t mean real-life business mentors can’t work alongside the people delivering the theory. Our universities nurture and produce some incredible talent, so why not develop this talent further and help to put students’ immense knowledge into practice, which will support them after graduation?

It is fair to say that despite regularly bemoaning graduates’ lack of employability skills, employers don’t always help the situation. Many will cream off the high-achieving students from the “best” universities – just because they can. But what about those students who may have slightly lower grades but far greater social and employablilty skills? These are often the individuals who are destined for the greatest success.

The respondents in THE’s University Leaders Survey are right about the need for closer links with industry, but there needs to be greater thought about how we are going to get there.

Prospective students need to ask the destination question. Employers and universities need to recognise the advantages of pairing great academia with real-life business skills.

Ronel Lehmann is CEO of Finito.

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Reader's comments (3)

Now, in the competitive world, for example the academic degree or the prestigious diploma are not a guarantee of receiving good work any more. Graduates have to have many professional communications to find work. Cooperation of three parties is necessary: goverment, business and universities. The goverment has to support priority jobs and also develop the others. Business should pay attention to investment into youth. The universities can create own technologies of multilateral cooperation and business and the state. All this will stimulate students and to force them to work.
You’re right that a university degree is not enough on its own. But for many of the young people we work with at Finito they have expected a university degree to be a critical stepping stone in their careers. Our concern is that universities are falling short in supporting their students’ transition to the work place and need to be as focused on destinations as they are on degrees.
Institute of Student Employers' Annual Survey revealed that the graduate recruiters that use 2:1 degree as a recruit criterion were decreasing. AGCAS' graduate labour market surveys also demonstrated that university careers services did substantial business activities to engage employers and students. Students' employability is an important narrative in higher education but it's not the only one. I am concerned about Igor's opinion. "Forcing them to work"? Do you think the government, universities, and employers in a democrat country have the power to force students to work?

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