John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, made his comments in a fringe debate at the Conservative Party conference last night – only for a business group head to accuse universities of being “defensive” about employability.
John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, set the debate in motion at the event in Manchester.
There were problems around graduates “being ready for work and having the softer skills needed: a range of communication skills, punctuality, motivation – which businesses often complain about. And actually complain about with good reason as well,” Mr Longworth told the Bright Britain event on universities and growth, hosted by the Social Market Foundation,Universities UK, GuildHE, the University Alliance, the 1994 Group, the Quality Assurance Agency and the National Union of Students.
Toni Pearce, NUS president, challenged Mr Longworth’s claims.
“I’m not sure that 25 years ago people were any less late for work than they are now. I’ve heard for a long time people saying that young people aren’t ready for work when they graduate college or university. But I don’t think they’re less ready for work than they were before,” Ms Pearce said.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence, other than anecdotal evidence, saying they are lazier, or less punctual, or less motivated, less entrepreneurial.”
Ms Pearce said the real problem was that students expecting to graduate into a secure job if they studied hard had been “sold a bit of a lie”.
The UK’s higher education system “creates incredible graduates, who are being let down”, she argued.
Professor Brooks said: “I’m fed up with employers telling us our students are not employment-ready. I think increasingly there’s evidence that employers are not graduate-ready.”
He argued that modern graduates, with an “independent, autonomous approach to learning and their understanding of technology, frankly scare employers”.
Mr Longworth countered that “if students come out of universities with the wrong degrees and/or are not ready for work, like it or not, they won’t be employed. It’s as simple as that.”
He added: “There’s no question there’s a shortage of engineering and science students.”
Mr Longworth told the audience he was “surprised by how defensive everyone’s being about employability”.