Skills training is gaining ground

More work placements are making graduates more employable, says QAA. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 1, 2008

Universities are making good progress in helping their students to become more employable, according to the Quality Assurance Agency.

A report based on audits of 59 institutions has found "widespread engagement" with work-based and placement learning and says that employability skills are commonly being introduced into the curriculum.

The verdict comes after the Government's higher level skills strategy, published last month, claimed that there were still concerns about graduates' skills. It cited a survey in which 48 per cent of Confederation of British Industry members were dissatisfied.

The Government document, Higher Education at Work - High Skills: High Value, said that fewer UK students receive work experience through work placements or internships than the European Union average and that UK graduates felt less prepared for their jobs.

However, the analysis by the QAA says that institutions are increasingly focusing on ensuring that students have the chance "to acquire a range of transferable skills relevant to employers as part of their courses".

Opportunities for work-based learning ranged from institutions giving "strong encouragement" to students to organise placements themselves to compulsory placement years or modules.

The report highlights difficulties in obtaining work placements on occasion and says that although foundation degrees generally have an emphasis on learning through work, in some cases reviewers said this should be strengthened.

The report concludes that "opportunities for work-based learning are widespread in a variety of institutions" and "for the most part, students engaged in such learning are well prepared".

The University of Surrey is one institution praised in the report for a "well-planned, resourced and supported placement system which adds significantly to the student experience".

Neil Ward, chairman of the professional training and careers committee at Surrey, said placements were offered across all departments of the university, from dance to sociology to engineering. "For the majority of students this is paid employment for a period of one year. It is a major factor leading to enhanced employability," he said.

Mike Harris, head of education and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said it was an "excellent development" that employability skills had risen up the agenda, and added that there were already examples of excellent practice.

"Some universities have almost made it their mission, but there is still further to go," he said.

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