Learning the basics to fit in

November 7, 1997

Employers at the Confederation of British Industry's conference have their say on graduate requirements

Graduate employability appears to have risen to the top of the national agenda.

The government has repeatedly argued that students should pay tuition fees because, as graduates, they will enjoy vastly improved employment prospects. And as well as making sure the students get a return on their estimated Pounds 15,000 investment in higher education, the government must also offer value-for-money to the taxpayers supporting the mass higher education system, by ensuring that graduates repay their debt to society in the labour market.

Some influential employers meeting at the Confederation of British Industry's national conference in Birmingham this week are in a strong position to dictate to vice chancellors. Most are not happy with what they are getting. But they are not speaking with a united voice.

For the "non-political" Institute of Directors and its 56,000 members, the message is clear. Tracy-Jane Malthouse, IoD employment research executive, said: "Employers' expectations of graduates are not being met. There is a lack of even the most basic skills.

"Employers are confused, they don't know what a degree means anymore, and they are creating thier own Ivy Leagues."

The IoD believes the end of the polytechnic/university division was "a bad thing" and it opposes plans by the government, and Sir Ron Dearing, to expand student numbers. It wants a reduction.

The CBI is a champion of HE expansion - it opposed tuition fees claiming they would be a deterrent to widening access.

Sabrina Hosain, education policy adviser to the CBI, said: "We support increased participation. It enables everyone to gain skills, and employers have more opportunity to pick out the best. We are also concerned about the lack of basic aptitude in business competence.

"We would like to see overspecialism avoided. We want more generic transferable skills for a flexible labour market."

But it is the small businesses, with little tradition of employing graduates, which are increasingly setting the tone for graduate employability. The Federation of Small Businesses wants more specialism. "Small employers expect a graduate to be able to fit in overnight," said Stephen Alambritis, FSB policy spokesman.

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