Confusion in careers debate

January 23, 2003

Higher education institutions are caught in the middle of a confused debate over graduate employability, with their reactions ranging from "we do it already" to "it's not our job", according to a report.

Higher Education: Higher Ambitions? , by Critical Thinking and the Scottish Council Foundation, is based on a review of recent research, policy and practice. It says the debate is often distorted by concerns about skills shortages and the needs of the economy.

Jane Denholm, director of Critical Thinking, said the differing views had led to a lack of leadership from the government and bodies such as the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. She hoped the report would help them "get beyond their vague exhortations to the sector to do 'more'" and provide some practical approaches and direction.

The report argues that employability is an individual's ability to succeed in the job market, and that higher education institutions should help graduates to develop, use and present relevant skills.

"We read over 70 documents for this study and think that our analysis brings some clarity to what is a confused and complicated issue," Ms Denholm said. "We should be listening to what the students themselves are telling us, through the research and in policy statements. They want the opportunities and guidance to be made available during their undergraduate careers. Given those, they will make themselves employable."

The report found strong evidence that practical work experience is crucial to helping students find suitable jobs soon after they graduate. And part-time work is increasingly seen less as a hindrance to study than a boost to employability where institutions encourage students to recognise the skills they are gaining.

But the report warns of "a major inconsistency" in employers' views. They still favour young  graduates from traditional universities even though mature students and graduates from new universities often have more relevant skills.

Barbara Graham, director of Strathclyde University's careers service, said that the implications

of wider access had not always been embraced by employers. Too many of them, she said, still expect "suitable" graduates to have not only appropriate skills but also a high Universities and Colleges Admissions Service score.

Higher education careers services were keen to keep working with employers and government policy-makers to explore how to resolve difficulties, she said.

A spokesperson for the Scottish funding councils said: "This is a very useful report that highlights the wide range of issues associated with employability, and the importance of clearly distinguishing between them."

She said it would help the Scottish funding councils to develop employability policies. "For example, both councils will shortly be consulting their sectors on the future role and operation of careers education and guidance services. We hope to make use of the reports when considering institutional responses to this consultation."


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