Lecturers should spend time in the "real" world of work to learn the practical skills they need to teach job-seeking students.
Too many lecturers have spent most or all their working lives in academe and are ill prepared to teach students the practical skills they will need to secure jobs after graduation, according to Mike Hill, chief executive of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit.
Mr Hill said: "Universities should be encouraging and facilitating lecturers to go into the workplace. Staff from both the higher education and external sectors should be moving freely between these sectors."
Mr Hill was speaking prior to the launch of a CSU and Universities UK report into graduate employability, Enhancing Employability, Recognising Diversity .
The report, which was released on Wednesday at a conference in London, contradicts the idea that universities are ivory towers turning out theory-laden graduates ill prepared for the workplace. It also shows that vocationally oriented higher education is academically rigorous and does not represent dumbing down.
It draws on higher education practices aimed at making graduates work-ready. Much of the focus is on embedding workplace skills, such as team working, in degree courses. In many institutions, such skills form the backbone of modules that count towards qualifications. Expanding and accrediting undergraduate work experience is also highlighted in the report.
Speaking at the launch conference, UUK president Roderick Floud said:
"Public accusations of graduates' lack of skills and of universities'
elitism share much in common. Well, they are wrong on both counts. We as a sector are not complacent. But we cannot and should not be expected to deal with all these issues alone."
The report has a number of recommendations for the government, employers and institutions. They include:
- The government should encourage employers to become more involved in higher education provision by, for example, helping universities design courses
- Universities should gear course structures, curricula content and teaching methods to take account of the skills graduates will need to make them attractive to employers
- Universities should accredit even informal student work experience such as bar work
- Employers should acknowledge graduates' achievements while at university even if their previous educational attainment, in terms of A-level results, was poor.
Mr Hill, who sat on the report's steering group, is particularly keen to see the formal integration of work experience in courses and for acknowledgement and accreditation of informal work experience.
He said: "Working in a fast food restaurant can be valuable to a student. They could be learning about customer service, workplace management and negotiation skills."
One of the report's authors William Locke, a policy adviser at UUK, urged employers to take into account graduates' backgrounds when recruiting. He said there was evidence that those who failed to achieve three A levels were disadvantaged in the job market.
Mr Locke said: "If we are to convince this generation of widening participation students that university is for them, then they have to be convinced that they are getting a return, in terms of employment opportunities, on their studies."
John Hickman is running his own web design and film-making company, High Tide Productions Ltd, after graduating from the University of Central England two years ago. Mr Hickman gained a BA in media studies and communications, and chose the university because of the integrated vocational content of the degree.
Students had to take a module in professional studies, basically formal work experience, as part of the degree. His first spell was with computer programmers working at the university, the second with the Guernsey Press and Star as a photographer. The university careers service also found him a job with a marketing consultancy, which he held down throughout his degree.
Mr Hickman said: "It is very important to get out there and do the practical stuff. There is only so much you can learn in the classroom."
Annmary Slonje is about to start the final year of a BA in applied psychology at the University of North London and intends to work in consumer psychology after taking a novel module at the university.
She spent a 12-week semester with a London-based marketing firm assessing whether the colour tone of a fragrance affected people's perceptions of how it smelled. Ms Slonje presented her findings to the company, which treated it as a useful piece of market research.
Ms Slonje said: "I think this practical experience will make a difference in getting a job."
Sharon Grimmond landed her first job through the work-based learning she did as a student at the University of East London.
Now a web developer for New Deal for Communities, based in Newham, London, Ms Grimmond fought hard to gain work experience during her three-year IT degree and had to change course to be eligible for work-based learning. After taking IT with new technology, she switched to IT with combined honours to get credit and help with finding work-based learning.
She said: "I wanted desperately to get work experience. There's a lot of competition in IT, and work experience is essential."
With principal lecturer and project manager Mary Karpel, Ms Grimmond devised a learning programme that was later used to assess her progress. She completed her studies in May, and has worked for New Deal for Communities ever since.