Nurture all-round talents

Preparing graduates for work does not mean abandoning the ideal of a liberal higher education, argues Eddie Blass

January 15, 2009

Talent management is the hot theme on the corporate agenda, addressing how to recruit, retain and develop the talent an organisation needs to ensure a successful future. But what is it that organisations are looking for?

There are lots of buzzwords in the corporate vocabulary - "emotional intelligence", "complex teams", even "talent management" - that are touted as requiring new skill sets, but if you look behind the terms, not much is new.

Organisations need people who can communicate effectively, who can solve problems and spawn new ideas and who can work collaboratively with different people all around the world. These elements underpin successful individuals in organisations. People can learn the finer points of their work and their market as they move up and around an organisation.

The basis of who they are, how they think and how they relate to others is a more fundamental form of development - it is the development of the individual as a person. While this continues throughout our working lives, the best opportunity for developing these foundations is at university.

The traditional ideal of the university as a provider of liberal education should not be lost in the utilitarian agenda that the Government is promoting as business-facing, because the business-facing agenda is facing universities and businesses in opposite directions.

The Leitch report pays lip service to improving engagement between employers and universities. It defines skills as "capabilities and expertise in a particular occupation or activity" and concentrates on numeracy and literacy.

This, from a document entitled Prosperity for All in the Global Economy: World Class Skills. But it is not possible to cover the issues of a third of adults lacking a basic school-leaving certificate in the same document as the need for world-class skills to remain competitive in a global economy.

While funding follows such flawed thinking, universities will continue to turn out graduates who are not appreciated by industry, and industry will continue to "retrain" them through their own corporate provision.

Businesses are not interested in a dumbed-down quantifiable measure of numeracy - they are interested in how individuals apply themselves, their knowledge and their capabilities at work. They want people who can adapt the rigour of academic study to the workplace; maintain self-discipline to see a task through; solve problems by researching solutions and evaluating choices against clear criteria; and justify their decisions rationally while remaining sensitive to other people. These are the outcomes of a liberal education - the education of the whole person, not the measurement of a defined set of skills.

To achieve this, academics must shift to being more business-understanding and adapt courses to include real-world examples and practice-based problems that allow graduates to get a sense of the imperfections of the global economy.

If universities are to become truly business-facing, academics must work with industry. This means having a "conversation" rather than a "dialogue"; listening to a company's needs rather than analysing its discourse; and being responsive and adaptive. The result should be graduates with both the liberal education of the university ideal and the ability to apply this self-development at work.

Until this happens, employers will continue to get graduates who lack the skills they seek, and universities will continue to churn out graduates who go on to jobs that do not require graduate-level skills.

"Business-facing" does not mean simply seeing each other on the horizon - it means universities and businesses both taking a long, hard, honest look at what each party brings to the table and thinking about how the two can create a new kind of synergy.

This may take the form of "corporate degrees" provided jointly by organisations and universities, or it may mean universities adapting their provision to better prepare students for employers' needs. What it does not mean is the loss of a liberal education ideal in favour of dumbed-down utilitarian skills for the ease and simplicity of comparison and measurement.

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