David Rudnick reports on a European initiative that links employers and graduate job seekers. Six British universities are helping to pioneer a project which brings together graduates looking for work in Europe and companies wishing to recruit them. Belatedly, an organised common market in educationally qualified people is starting to complement the single market for goods and services.
Up to now, European graduates have had no means of accessing job opportunities outside their own country on a systematic basis. (INSEAD, the European Business School at Fontainebleau in France has provided far too narrow a filter for postgraduate high-flyers). But now a computer-based pan-European employment service is up and running to meet the needs of graduates in all disciplines seeking work in the European Economic Area (the European Union plus Norway and Iceland).
Seventeen European universities are participating in the scheme, which forms part of the EURES (European Employment Services) job agency network centred in Directorate General 5 of the Brussels Commission. The idea is to find a practical application for the concept of European citizenship so graduates can regard virtually the whole continent as their oyster.
British universities to have signed up include Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Manchester and Middlesex. They employ Euro-advisers (usually their careers advisers) who monitor job vacancies they see advertised on the computer screen and then inform graduates they consider to be suitable applicants. They also keep graduates informed about working and living conditions in other EEA member states, ranging from tax and social security payments to finding accommodation.
Big companies have been operating on a European rather than a national scale for decades, so it is surprising that this transnational graduate recruitment scheme was not set up a long time ago. But better late than never. British corporates like United Biscuits, Barclays Bank and Guest Keen & Nettlefold are among the first in the field.
UB tapped into the system last November, attracted like other companies by a much bigger pool to fish for recruits. "We found it very simple to make contacts via the universities, who immediately put out requirements into the University-EURES network," said a spokesman appreciatively. "Some let their graduates scroll through the available vacancies on screen, though most channel them through their Euro-advisers."
UB report they have placed a dozen or so job vacancies on the system as a trial run. "We're plotting it as a recruitment scheme; whether we go on using it has yet to be decided," the spokesman added. But with production facilities dotted across Europe, it makes sense to cast the recruitment net as wide as possible.
GKN, like UB, were introduced to University-EURES by Edinburgh University. The company is engagingly frank about the bottom line. "Recruiting graduates this way costs us nothing, while employment agencies would obviously charge us commission," said a personnel manager. About 30 graduates have responded to GKN's call - all from outside the United Kingdom.
Barclays' participation in the network was solicited by Cambridge. "The response so far has been in tens rather than hundreds," said a graduate recruitment manager. "Awareness of University-EURES as a graduate information system still needs to filter through."
As a new, relatively untried pilot venture, University-EURES will have to build on success. Noel Starr, Euro-adviser and head of Middlesex University's careers service, sees increased labour mobility as a prime benefit. "Our aim is to fill as many graduate vacancies as possible, and establish an integrated European labour market that will help bring down unemployment," he said.
Sceptics might argue that the best and brightest graduates from Europe's poorest regions will flock to the ABC golden triangle - the area roughly bounded by Amsterdam, Brussels and Cologne - denuding undeveloped and deprived regions of their remaining store of talent. That happened to Italy's mezzogiorno after unification, and arguably it is still happening to Britain's outlying extremities today. But market forces move in mysterious ways. Multinationals seeking low-cost production locations are slowly moving into Europe's deprived areas; for example, landing a job with Siemens, the German engineering company, could take you to Newcastle.
A more nuts-and-bolts problem arises from the fact that while all 17 participants in University-EURES are on the Internet, the Commission's co-ordinating BEC computer remains, for security reasons, on Infonet.
But this is seen as a teething problem. More serious are doubts in the minds of some European employers that national qualifications signify equivalent value across the EEA.
The official Commission line is that national academic awards are deemed to be equal and should be accepted as such "in good faith". In practice, however, Euro-advisers like Noel Starr accept that "a BA degree might not mean much abroad, so instead of trying to equate different national qualifications, grades ranging from one to five (low to high) are applied. One has to interpret them and be aware of local interpretations."
Language proficiency is in any case likely to prove a more crucial qualification for inexperienced recent graduates with ambiguous arts and social science degrees. The experience of non-graduate EURES job applicants points to the overriding importance of appropriate linguistic competence as a prerequisite. Graduates with an impressive science or engineering degree, or technical skills in short supply, will doubtless buck the trend. But anyone else hoping to start a management career through University-EURES will find monolingualism simply will not wash.
So if this university pilot scheme is extended, a greater premium will attach to language qualifications, enhancing the role and importance of language courses, especially as adjuncts to economics and business studies. In Britain this could help promote the prestige of the newest universities, whose status as recent polytechnics is still uncertain.
If European integration is about anything, it is expanding horizons and improving standards through competitive pressure. Building a unified database for employment in the EU gives undergraduates an added incentive - and need - to get the best degree grade possible to compete effectively on the European job market.
Indeed, as University-EURES progresses, it will be interesting to see how the participating universities compare in their ability to place their graduates successfully through the system. Their relative success rate might even come to be viewed as a practical criterion of their overall effectiveness as educational institutions.