For many of us working to help the UK’s graduates be better prepared to succeed professionally, the first formal results of the Higher Education Academy’s UK Engagement Survey come as no surprise. The survey found that only about one-quarter of undergraduates believed that their courses are supplying them with the employability skills needed to meet the demands of businesses.
Worryingly, the answers provided by final years almost mirrored those starting their courses – indicating that degrees are not currently developing the skills young people need to succeed in the world of work. The CBI survey of employers released over the summer told a similar story, with almost half dissatisfied with graduates’ levels of business awareness.
This presents real challenges for the future of the UK’s higher education sector. We live in a globalised economy, and the reputation of our universities could be eroded if we fail to develop professional skills on campuses. Closer to home, top-tier businesses are starting to question whether a degree is a necessity; in August top accounting firm Ernst & Young announced that it would no longer consider degree or A-level results when assessing applicants – an endorsement of the importance of “soft” skills over degree classifications.
Additionally, since the tuition fee rises, students have become more critical consumers of higher education. They are, rightly, expecting more from their lecturers and universities. And the top thing they expect is a foot on the ladder to a rewarding career. If they feel that universities are unable to offer them this, then surely they will start looking for alternatives.
To counter these challenges, we must continue to remind ourselves that very few young people go to university with a life in academia as an end goal; history and philosophy students are every bit as likely to aspire to a career in the Square Mile as they are to one in the quads of Oxbridge. We must therefore ensure that we make a greater effort to work more closely with employers and industry organisations in the design and delivery of degrees so that our students have a greater chance of achieving their goals.
A university’s focus on soft skills and employer engagement depends on the institution’s culture. In many respects, much of this culture is defined on entry.
At Pearson College London, for example, we have designed a twin-track route on to our programmes. One way in is the traditional one, with Ucas points and a personal statement. The second is more career-focused. We run graduate scheme-style assessment days with interviews, group exercises and cognitive tests. This allows us to identify candidates who show the potential for drive, creativity and the ability to communicate and collaborate – in other words, professional skills that in our view are just as important as academic ability.
We think this process also allows us to cultivate a more diverse campus, where people with differing skills and strengths can work together, just like in the regular world of work.
The UK Engagement Survey has provided us with a wake-up call. It is now time for the sector to respond to the demands of students and employers and build more professional skills and experiences into the UK’s higher education offer.
Roxanne Stockwell is principal of Pearson College London.