Get smart with a nous test

January 17, 1997

Employability is the key to a job for graduates.

Jonathan Brill describes a new test that gives students the chance to prove their skills and employers a measure of them

Many jobs attract hundreds, even thousands, of applicants. Few organisations can deal with the problem of mass applications properly. Some human resources managers have said they choose who to interview by the slant of the handwriting or the post code; some are known to target students from one of only 15 universities. At least one organisation uses a scanner to scan the letter of application for "buzz words". Some confess to relying on A levels.

Many students are now employed in small to medium-sized enterprises, many of which do not have a personnel division that is equipped to deal with deciding who to interview. One story from our researchers revealed that the recruiting partner in an eight-partner firm of barristers was having to choose from more than 200 applications for one vacancy. All the applications were from so-called premier league institutions and all had first-class qualifications.

The problem for students is a real one. In the face of such (dubious) practices, how do you get noticed?

Some universities are building "core skills" into the curriculum, and approaches perhaps amounting to a core national curriculum for higher education are being discussed. Yet many questions remain unanswered. Such solutions are unlikely to help the students of a university which is not currently "targeted" by an employer as a supplier of would-be employees. The burden of teaching core skills will fall on institutions already strapped for cash. And assessment methods, all too often a mixture of self-assessment and appraisal by a tutor, are both expensive to operate, and not yet accepted as national criteria of employability.

In response to such difficulties the Graduate Employability Test has been devised. From next month it will be available to British graduates and diplomats. The Nous Test, as it has been described, is a test of skills and aptitudes employers say they want, and has been compiled by leading organisations in the field. It tests familiar areas of computer acumen, communication skills, leadership skills, literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving.

Uniquely it will be available to be undertaken by computer at one of 50-plus test centres around the United Kingdom. A graduate will book a time slot through a free phone, pay for the test, attend a convenient centre in the UK, or in one of 62 other countries, and at the end of the session receive a profile of their skills in these areas. They may then use the GET profile together with their degree results and CV when applying for a job.

The test technology, run by Sylvan Prometric, a United States-based company, has already provided tests to some two million candidates. It will have been a two-year time span from conception to the launch of the service during which advice, sought and unsolicited, has been received from a great many employers, universities, professional associations, and students.

I do not believe that the image of a neat line separating higher education and industry is appropriate. For the bulk of the 300,000 annual output of graduates and HND students, it is a chasm. Universities are not accountable for students following graduation, and employers are not accountable until the student is employed. A feature of the chasm is the number of organisations trying to help, but for many students the problem of trying to get a job interview remains grim.

Different types of student will tackle employability in their own way. My final-year group of students comprises a majority of part-time or mature students, whose occupations range from policeman to national skiing coach. Some will gain work experience during the course. It cannot be assumed that students possess essential skills simply from their current employment, nor that they necessarily gain such skills from work-based learning. In our view, only a nationally set summative profile will confirm or deny students' capabilities. It is designed to be useful to employers when they are trying to decide who to interview.

Following the extensive piloting of the GET we conducted tests in the field with a blue-chip employer, a university, and a charity which offers students the opportunity to spend a year in industry. This provided us with further useful preliminary data about whether the benefit of a year in industry provides a different (better?) profile in the Employability Test.

As the GET is based on a worldwide computer database, and assuming significant numbers of students take the GET, we will collect useful data on how students fare by region, perhaps by university, from the employability test. This information we will make available free of charge to responsible agencies concerned with employment and employability. Equally, we will be happy to consider adding questions to our student registration system to allow us to develop.

The GET will add an objectively measured benchmark of core skills and aptitudes to the degree qualification and CV of a candidate and thus help solve the problem of how to choose graduates for job interview. It is an approach which will allow universities to tackle issues of employability in their own way. It allows a degree, regardless of the subject, to demonstrate the student's conceptual competence, and intellectual abilities.

I find it hard to believe, but some people regard the gathering of such data on employability as controversial. Could it be that current league tables are based on out-of-date information?

Jonathan Brill is project director (teaching developments) at Brunel University College.

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