Firms shift towards wanting ‘work-ready’ graduates

Latest edition of Global University Employability Ranking suggests systems with closest industry partnerships on skills are on the rise

November 19, 2020
Students at a job fair
Source: Getty

An increasing number of firms worldwide are seeing the purpose of university as ensuring that graduates are “job-ready” when they leave higher education, an annual survey of employers has suggested.

About half of graduate recruiters also plan to invest more in their own internal training programmes to ensure that graduates have the skills needed for the workplace, results from the 2020 Global University Employability Survey show.

The survey, now in its 10th year and produced by Paris-based HR consultancy Emerging, gathered responses from almost 9,000 graduate recruiters worldwide on a series of issues, including their views on the top universities for employability.

It suggests that the past decade has seen a shift in attitudes among companies towards higher education, with 28 per cent of respondents to the 2020 survey believing the purpose of university was to produce “ready-to-work” graduates, up from just 8 per cent a decade ago.

Similarly, the proportion of recruiters saying that they saw university as a place that was “mainly focused on theoretical skills” has dropped from about a third to 13 per cent.

Laurent Dupasquier, associate director of Emerging, said he had seen a noticeable “redefinition” of employability inside universities in recent years from a one-dimensional focus on “CV writing” and helping graduates to get a job to working more closely with firms on equipping students with the right skills.

This was arguably backed up by the results of the Global University Employability Ranking, in which systems with traditionally close links between higher education and industry, such as Germany and South Korea, have risen steadily.

“All in all, what we see is how the relationship with industry has intensified, and it is obviously the countries that have had systems like that for a long time that are doing well in the ranking,” Mr Dupasquier said.

Sandrine Belloc, managing partner at Emerging, added that countries with developing systems were also establishing strong university-business partnerships because they had been able to focus “on something that looked easier to them” than the decades of work that might be needed to build a large research-based higher education system.

Mr Dupasquier said the risk for universities that did not engage closely with industry – such as through course design or professionally validated qualifications – was that firms themselves could become competitors.

Results from the survey suggest that while 51 per cent of recruiters said they thought their firm should invest more in university partnerships to aid graduate employability, 49 per cent said pouring money into internal qualification programmes would be preferable.

“Digitalisation has gone so fast and is so disruptive that it…offers space for companies to move [into education] themselves. And I would say it could happen first in systems that are not so geared towards employability like the UK and the US. I would imagine companies there could become competitors to universities,” Mr Dupasquier said.

He added that the pandemic would also accelerate some of these trends, with the survey showing that 82 per cent of recruiters wanted to see more collaboration with universities to “develop significantly new digital training formats” as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Joe Marshall, chief executive of the UK’s National Centre for Universities and Business, said higher tuition fees and increased student numbers across most of the country have “led to an increased focus on providing graduates with the skills they need for a wider range of careers”.

There were also plenty of signs that universities were working more closely with firms on elements that affected employability such as course design and work placements.

This had ramped up during the pandemic, he said, although he thought the government could “take more of a lead” in encouraging more collaboration between the sectors.

“We have recently called for the establishment of an independent body to analyse current and future skills needs of the UK and to develop a joined-up strategy to ensure that education providers are providing the skills needed for the labour market,” Dr Marshall said.

Global University Employability Ranking 2020

Employability Rank 2020 Institution Country/region Employability Rank 2019 Position in THE World University Ranking 2021
1 California Institute of Technology United States 2 4
2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States 3 5
3 Harvard University United States 1 3
4 University of Cambridge United Kingdom 4 6
5 University of Oxford United Kingdom 11 1
6 The University of Tokyo Japan 7 =36
7 Stanford University United States 5 2
8 University of Toronto Canada 15 18
9 National University of Singapore Singapore 14 25
10 Yale University United States 9 8
Source: Global University Employability Ranking © Emerging

How countries have fared in the ranking – 2020 v 2010

Country/region Country rank 2020 Country rank 2010 Number of universities in 2020 ranking
United States 1 1 51
France 2 3 18
Germany 3 12 17
United Kingdom 4 2 14
China 5 11 10
Australia 6 5 10
Canada 7 4 9
Switzerland 8 7 8
South Korea 9 21 8
Japan 10 6 8
Source: Global University Employability Ranking © Emerging. Note: Country rank determined by points total in each edition of the GUER


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Reader's comments (6)

This is not a new trend since for a company it is good business if the public purse and the graduate can pay for what is really the responsibility of the employer. In one of my previous jobs, I heard a tale of the institution's former polytechnic days when the Head of Department told firms "we do education not training". This was long before most of the staff were research active but reflects what should be the fundamental philosophy of higher education.
Funny how we've shifted since the inception of student fees. Once upon a time, long long ago, in a distant land, if a school leavetr wanted to be e.g. a nurse or radiographer, they got a job at the bottom rung in a hospital, worked their way up. being trained on the job. Now the employers are outsourcing the 'training' bit for free and the wannabee radiographer, nurse, pays for ther own training through student loans. Everybody gains; employers save on training costs and get 'oven ready/ recruits, the VC's get humungous incomes from bums on seats, the HE sector now employs many many more people than it did when 5% school leavers went there because emplpoyers now all insist on degrees as the new A Levels....only the stiudent=future employee loses, as they pay for what was on-the-job training. Or the taxpayer does. Nice trick to have pulled off.
Yes, agree with the above. In the UK context, employers renounced their stakeholder status when they rescinded Dearing through the Browne commission. They should, accordingly, hold their tongue.
This seems to be a rather instrumental and anti-intellectual approach to the perennial social question asking what universities are for. I do not train employees, I educate people to think, critique and question - great skills for all walks of life but I do it with a disciplinary rather than 'employability' focus.
As an international higher education policy consultant in developing countries, I see a donor funding shift from University Education towards TVET in order to gain more traction in reducing migration from Africa towards Europe. While Universities in Africa have indeed big challenges, to me it is misguided to shift investment away from them towards TVET in the belief that all that counts is employability. The African continent needs big thinkers who can seize the opportunities of the digital revolution to tackle the socioeconomic opportunities and challenges of the continent, and I do applaud the initiatives of the EAC, the EU Commission directorate for education, culture, languages, youth and sport, which invests hugely together with the African Union in the engagement between European and African Higher education institutions. After all Africa is a continent of people not solely of employees.
In the US, as state legislatures reduced their financial support for universities, universities had to find other sources of income. Like bank robbers, they went where the money was, corporations. But corporations obviously wanted some return on their investment; so universities offered more business oriented programs. Even research in the hard sciences is often geared towards commercialization. Universities should continue the preparation of young adults for living fulfilling lives, part of which usually includes working with or helping others.


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