More to learning than job skills

November 13, 1998

For a government that enjoys urging couples to get married and advising parents what time their children should come home, telling universities what to teach is all in a day's work.

But the idea (back page) that employability skills should form part of university courses should be treated with care, instead of being adopted on the whim of the big employers - as seems to be the risk. Despite the support of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, it is not a development that will command universal support among academics.

Figures this week show that more graduates are in the workforce than ever and many are in jobs for which a degree is not necessary. This suggests that the nation is not flooded with unemployables clutching degree certificates. Instead, a record number of students have work experience - and the incentive of a big chunk of debt to encourage them to market themselves.

Formally adding employment skills to university courses risks adding requirements in areas such as verbal communication and IT that students ought to acquire anyway during their courses - if not before- and perhaps adding material on topics such as social skills that amount to little more than social grooming. What should be dropped to make time for material designed to increase job skills?

Even if there is scope for such content, designing it in will be difficult. Some courses have a comparatively fixed curriculum which leads to a known career path. It is hard to know what employment skills it would be useful to add. Other courses can take graduates into any of a wide range of jobs - which means that the job skills they need are unpredictable.

More valuable are moves (page 30) to ensure that students know what the course they are on will enable them to do and what to expect from the parts into which it is divided. Students who know what they have learnt are likely to be most valuable to their future colleagues and employers.

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