Job skills booster is catalyst for change

November 10, 1995

When captains of industry stand up to speak about higher education, what are they most likely to say?

The answer, if the speeches of the past decade are anything to go by, is that they will claim universities and colleges are failing to equip students with the kind of skills most valued by the world of work.

So established is this cliche that few bother to challenge the implication that higher education institutions and employers rarely collaborate, or that if they do, they fail to understand one another.

Yet there is growing recognition that significant progress has been made on this front over the past eight years through a Government-sponsored project.

The Enterprise in Higher Education initiative, launched in 1987 to promote projects designed to encourage students to think about and develop job-related skills, has so far involved 20,000 employers and more than 60 institutions. Since it was set up, awarding contracts offering institutions up to Pounds 1 million in start-up funding, total Government expenditure of Pounds 58 million on the project has been exceeded by employer contributions of over Pounds 66 million. While pump-priming grants will cease from the end of the next financial year, most institutions which have taken part say the initiative has brought about permanent changes in higher education provision and culture.

At the University of North London, the money has been used to develop a scheme which builds up a profile of student achievement and skills. Students are encouraged to consider which "transferable" skills they possess, such as good communication skills, and which they would like to develop. They are given the means to document skills acquired and the opportunity to build skill-building elements into learning programmes.

The scheme, now in its fourth year, has become integrated into the curriculum, and has led to an institution-wide review of course content and objectives. Alison Assiter, the university's EHE coordinator until last week and now head of social studies at the University of Luton, said that although many were sceptical about profiling at first, the benefits were soon apparent in students' preparedness for job interviews and the challenges they faced later in their career.

"It is not so much the production of the profiling document that is important as students having been through a process of thinking about skills, how and where they have acquired them and how they might transfer them," she said.

A similar approach to the development of career management skills has been introduced through the EHE initiative at the University of Portsmouth. The university careers service realised that students' awareness of their own abilities, of career opportunities, and of the importance of good decision-making, needed to be built into learning programmes.

An "indirect" staff development programme introduced academics to learning materials produced by the careers service. The students union was encouraged to create a support and development unit to help students cultivate career management skills, and employers were included on departmental advisory boards to help mould new learning programmes.

Mike Silvester, the university's EHE director, said the initiatives had brought about a cultural change at the university. "It has finally brought acceptance of the idea that employers can make a useful contribution to the higher education process," he said.

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