Discreet rise of career aims

October 31, 1997

Critics call them Noddy courses, but more and more students are opting for highly vocational study

SHOULD universities be transforming themselves into training grounds for industry? While many careers departments might secretly say yes, few would be bold enough to say so publicly.

Leeds University's careers service director, Richard Siddall, acknowledges that a shift is occurring, but stops short of advocating such a radical agenda at a traditional research-led institution.

"We are moving more in the direction of employment training, in fact the whole of higher education is geared up a lot more to students understanding the context of knowledge. We prefer to see it as preparation for work," he said.

Pockets of academic resistance to skills training have not dented Dr Siddall's enthusiasm. There are many initiatives running within various academic departments at Leeds, devised specifically to get students' work skills up to speed.

But a lot of the time it is more a matter of getting students to recognise the relevant intellectual capabilities already gained from undergraduate study and learning how to apply them in a business context.

The problem is that students were often confused by the idea of transferable skills, said Dr Siddall. Research carried out recently by Val Butcher of Leeds careers service found that too many students assumed a dependent attitude when broaching the issue of careers.

A high proportion of students seeking advice from the careers service had no idea what direction to take. The research found many had difficulty carrying out life and career decisions.

To further confuse matters, the relevance of personal skills development was not always emphasised by academics. Students were not always sure why they were being encouraged to develop communications, team-working or problem-solving skills.

To address the confusion a project called Making Links, part of the Career Management Skills project funded by the Department for Education and Employment, is aiming to clarify career management for students.

"Students need to be aware of the distinction between the skills that will enhance their academic work, and those which will enable them to achieve their career objectives," said Dr Siddall.

Good essay writing is an example. Not many job specifications demand that as a skill but many professional jobs require the ability to research a subject and write a report clearly and concisely.

Similarly, a good seminar performance can be excellent preparation for work, showing team-working, presentation and effective communication - all skills employers say they want from recruits.

Then there are the management abilities perfected outside studies such as organising entertainments or fundraising for local charities. Dr Siddall said matching these kinds of skills to commercial requirements was the key.

Failing to keep in touch with commercial requirements was a criticism often levelled at universities, too often still seen as ivory towers. Leeds was not guilty, said Dr Siddall. This week he has meetings with Ernst and Young, BP and Asda. Other blue-chip firms regularly come in to the university to chair workshops and share labour market information.

But there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"While we are making significant inroads there is no way we have 4,500 graduates leaving the university at the end of the year ready for work," he said.

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