Do students need a skills certificate and a degree? Alec Farquharson reports on new moves to meet employers' needs
One day, in the not so distant future, students may leave universities clutching two pieces of parchment - a degree certificate, of course, but also a "skills sheet". This would set out how their membership of the college football team or their part-time job at the local supermarket has helped them develop the skills employers are so keen on - dealing with and managing people, communication, numeracy, computer know-how.
It would be a radical step - but one employers would welcome with open arms. Last month, Income Data Services published its annual graduate jobs survey. It revealed that a third of the graduates recruited by the companies surveyed lacked specific skills, especially business awareness and communication skills.
Employers are in talks with an organisation called Stadia about developing a nationwide scheme to accredit student skills. Stadia grew out of Enterprise in Higher Education, a government initiative to encourage links between employers and universities. It now operates under the auspices of the National Union of Students in universities and further education colleges, helping students identify the skills they are acquiring through extra-curricular activities.
Stadia director Adam Nichols thinks students already have many of the skills employers want - but they need quantifying. He says students are learning all the time: "Running a film club or captaining a football team teaches you management and leadership skills." Students rarely realise how skilled they are. "We want them to be more conscious of what it is they already have.
"We are working on a national accreditation award that will not be based on people's degrees. There are already schemes with local accreditation in existence, but we need something that employers across the country can recognise." The best of the local schemes, Nichols says, is the York Award. Students at York University who take part receive a certificate listing the skills they have acquired, and they can show this to local employers (see below).
Throughout higher education there is a drive to identify skills shortages in students and to help them use their time in university to fill the gaps. Another way of acquiring skills is for students to work for companies for short periods - either paid or unpaid. The need was defined by the Dearing report, which said that work experience should be bedded into the university curriculum, a call echoed by education secretary David Blunkett.
Since then, several initiatives have developed, funded partly through the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry, and partly by employers, including some multinational firms. The National Centre for Work Experience, started with government seed money, is campaigning to turn out rounded and competent graduates. Karen Powell-Williams, its managing director, says: "Whether or not graduates are employable is rising up (universities') agenda; work experience is a proven route to improved employability." The centre works in four main sectors with acknowledged skills shortages - IT, creative industries, aerospace and retailing - to identify students who have completed successful work experience placements. The aim is to convince employers, especially small ones, of the benefits of offering work placements to undergraduates.
A big partner is Shell International, which has a well-established work experience placement scheme. Last year, the Shell Technology Enterprise programme found work for 1,500 students, who earn up to Pounds 140 a week, funded partly by training and enterprise councils and partly by the DTI.
Many academics believe that some gaps in student CVs occur because schools and parents no longer impart practical skills as children are increasingly pushed into high academic achievement. Other skills shortages result from employers' constantly changing needs.
One answer is for students to take a year out before coming to university, either for travel or voluntary work abroad. Martin Brady, of London Guildhall University, says he can recognise at once which undergraduates have taken a gap year. "A good set of A levels shows only that they have learnt to pass exams. Students who have had time out are confident and eager to take a full part in class debate." Organisations such as Raleigh International, GAP and Voluntary Services Overseas can help students acquire some of the elusive skills employers are so keen to see.
YORK AWARD: MODEL FOR A NATIONAL SCHEME?
The York Award is a programme of courses designed to improve students' employability. The National Union of Students would like to see a similar model available in all universities.
York was the first university to offer both a language and an IT certificate for all students whatever their degree subject. These were brought together to create the two modules that are the basis of the award.
All sorts of other activities can also count towards an award, including volunteering and work within the students' union. Students who take part build up a portfolio, which is assessed by an academic body.
The university also offers courses on basic accounting and effective communication. Academics and external employers mentor students working towards awards.
The careers service works with voluntary organisations and employers that offer work experience to find extracurricular activities for York Award students. It draws on 30 to 40 small to medium-sized firms in its area, ranging from solicitors and builders to national organisations such as Railtrack, HSBC bank, Boots and BP Amoco.
The award scheme is growing: the university hopes that 20 per cent of students will sign up this year. Local employers see it as evidence of a useful range of skills.