In the global jobs market, foreign talk isn't cheap, it's invaluable

Lack of language skills hampers UK graduates' efforts to find employment. Jack Grove reports

October 27, 2011

Graduates from UK universities are losing out on top international jobs because they cannot speak a second language, academics and business leaders have warned.

Serious concerns about the lack of multilingual graduates were raised at a policy meeting at the Houses of Parliament on 19 October to discuss student skills and employability.

Business leaders, academics, MPs and peers said the UK's education system, including universities, was failing to encourage students to study languages, whereas overseas students were expected to speak several languages regardless of what they were studying.

"No university should be producing graduates who cannot function at a basic level in another language," said Baroness Coussins, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, after the event, which was organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust.

"There is a feeling that 'English is enough' because it is spoken everywhere, but this is not true," she said. "Businesses are not looking for people who are fluent, but those who can do basic conversation and break the ice. It gives a good impression of that company."

The failure to promote multilingual graduates was "harming Britain's economic competitiveness", she added, as university leavers were struggling to win top places at multinational companies and institutions because their language skills let them down.

This meant that only 1.5 per cent of the 51,000 applicants for European Union jobs in Brussels this year were British, she said, which resulted in just seven successful UK candidates.

Tim Connell, former director of language studies at City University London, said life skills gained by multilingual graduates on year-abroad placements were also attractive to employers.

"Students have to be so adaptable because the skill sets required by businesses are changing so quickly," said Professor Connell, who is vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

"What you learn in your degree is normally out of date within five years, so what students carry with them are their skills," he added.

"I think higher education is very modest about the transferable skills that it gives to students."

"Soft skills" were also important for graduates entering the job market, said Florence Mele, director of studies at international business school ESCP Europe, where students must study in three countries during its two-year courses.

Presentation skills, public speaking and business etiquette were vital, she explained, as were the ability to project manage, meet deadlines and engage well with people from other countries and cultures.

Technical skills such as competency with Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint were also required, she added.

Despite concerns from participants that students should concentrate on academic learning, Ms Mele said these deficits in other skills should be addressed by universities.

"These are the skills that will help students find jobs - it is a university's responsibility to train them in these skills," she said.

David Coen, professor of public policy at University College London, said universities should encourage all students to develop language skills throughout their degrees.

Sustained study of a foreign language beyond secondary school was vital when applying to multinational corporations, he insisted.

"If someone applies with only GCSE French, they will not have the requisite skills to compete for those jobs," he said.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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