What do businesses mean by “work-ready” graduates? This is the question posed by Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation thinktank, in his blog for the National Centre for Universities and Business.
“I’ve recently been at each of the three main party conferences and this came up time and again, from individual business leaders as well as the directors of business representative bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce.”
But what do businesses actually mean when they use the term, Dr Mian continues. “After all, every business has its own competitive distinction, which is specific rather than general. Making its employees ready for their own particular business should be an important part of retaining the distinction. If every business needed identikit work-ready employees, then they would be identikit businesses.”
What business leaders are getting at, the blog says, is one of two things. “Sometimes they are talking about a ‘softer’ set of skills, a facility for the workplace, confidence, the ability to work in a team. Then, at other times, they are referring to specific skills shortages, such as those in engineering areas.”
On the former, universities are taking “big steps”. “Every vice-chancellor can speak at length about the employability programmes they have on campus and typically businesses are getting involved in designing and delivering these.”
The latter, however, is a major issue, Dr Mian says, citing a report by his thinktank that suggests there is an annual shortfall of 40,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Filling that gap means increasing graduate numbers by 50 per cent, and that’s before we consider any wider ambition to rebalance the UK economy towards science- or engineering-led industry sectors.”
A discussion about whether today’s graduates leave university ready for the world of work attracted comments on Times Higher Education’s LinkedIn Group page.
“Am I missing the point here? Or have we concluded the debate about the role and purpose of the Academy in favour of the emphasis upon employability?” asks group member Dave Hufton PhD.
“It used to be that a graduate was a person of somewhat precious potential, whom the workplace would nurture into effectiveness through extensive induction and relevant skills training, utilising the unique thinking capacity of the individual; but that took partnership, patience and investment.
“If employers expect not to have to make that investment, choosing to believe that their business should be subsidised by the government and the student’s own massive fees, surely we have a problem of more subtle debate than the false duality presented by the ‘work ready/not ready’ rhetoric?”
Ann Evans, a higher education consultant, adds that although higher education institutions take the issue seriously, deciding the specifics of what they could do to better prepare students is a tricky task.
“Universities are doing more and more to develop students’ ‘employability skills’ but the definition of what that means and how it can be measured continues to be elusive,” she says.
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