Universities in the UK are widely considered to be among the top higher education institutions in the world – and rightly so. The country is home to some of the world’s most renowned academics, who consistently produce high-quality research that has an impact on society. Lecturers are engaging and innovative in their teaching. And scholars are constantly forging partnerships with global peers to ensure they are up to speed on the latest developments in their field.
But when it comes to graduate employability, the UK’s dominance is less certain. The Global Employability University Ranking, published today, suggests that recruiters are increasingly turning away from UK institutions when choosing the universities from which they hire graduates.
The UK has 12 universities in the top 150 list, down from 13 last year. Of those, seven have fallen, four have gained places and one has remained static, leading to a net loss of 36 places.
University College London falls 16 places to 30th, for instance, while King’s College London declines eight places to 43rd. There is also downward movement outside the capital. The University of Nottingham drops 15 places to 78th and the University of Birmingham plummets 20 spots to 80th.
So what is the reason for the UK’s decline? One possible factor is that UK institutions’ links with industry are not as strong as those of their counterparts elsewhere. For my feature on the results of the ranking, I spoke to several institutions that consider strong relationships with employers to be a core part of their remit. Many of their courses include mandatory internships or extensive projects with industry that are integrated into the curriculum.
Another concern that has been raised is that UK universities that do offer work placements do not always provide the right kinds of opportunities. As David Docherty, chief executive of the UK’s National Centre for Universities and Business, told me: “The irony is that there are more placements being offered by universities than students taking them.”
Employers based in the UK are less likely than their global peers to believe that only universities able to establish links with companies can promote employability, according to the survey.
Despite that, the demand from employers is clear. When recruiters in the UK were asked which criteria they base their university selection on, the most popular response was links with companies, followed by expertise in one field of competency and the production of ready-to-work graduates. Laurent Dupasquier, associate director of Emerging, the French human resources consultancy that commissioned the survey and ranking, says that as the higher education market becomes increasingly globalised, “reputation plays less of a role and expertise [plays] more”.
There is no doubt that graduate employability is at the forefront of the minds of vice-chancellors across the UK, as high tuition fees and fierce competition for graduate jobs mean they are regularly required to justify the cost of a degree.
But this survey also reminds us that UK university leaders cannot rely solely on existing reputation in their drive to attract students and must prove that they can produce graduates who are ready for work.