Students need more soft skills, says shadow minister

Mentoring students in “emotional resilience” could improve graduate employability, according to Labour’s shadow higher education minister, who recalled her own challenges as the sole barrister in her chambers from an “immigrant, working-class” background.

July 18, 2012

Shabana Mahmood told an event on graduate employability hosted by the University Alliance group of institutions, that there were two key emerging areas in the field.

One was universities using alumni to give students “access to their own professional networks”, and the other was the “increased use of mentoring” to give students a grounding in so-called soft skills such as emotional resilience.

Ms Mahmood, who graduated from the University of Oxford before training as a barrister, said at the event, held in London on 17 July, that she mentors young people seeking to enter university or get their foot on the career ladder.

Recalling her first job as a barrister, Ms Mahmood said she was “the only person of my colour and of my religion, I think, in the whole of that set of chambers. I was probably the only person of my class background.”

Her experience as a young barrister had taught her the importance of the ability “to imply and fake confidence when you do not feel it”, she added.

Ms Mahmood said it was these so-called soft skills – which she noted were difficult to acquire for those who do not possess them – that she emphasises in her mentoring of students.

She said Labour’s shadow education ministers were working on a joined-up approach across schools, further education colleges and universities that would stress “employability skills as a key part, from the beginning, of your educational journey”.

Ms Mahmood also defended Labour’s target, set in government, for 50 per cent of young people to participate in higher education, calling it “ambitious and right”.

Higher education was central to “high-value, long-term wealth creation” and to attaining a “more cohesive society”, she said.

Ms Mahmood criticised the coalition government’s higher education policies, saying they were “going in the wrong direction as far as expanding opportunity is concerned” and she said that failing to support universities risked “collateral damage to local economies”.

She also attacked the coalition’s margin policy, which reallocates places to cheaper universities and to further education colleges.

The policy created a risk that “good courses are going to be cut” and “works against the provision of courses that cost more”, such as lab-based subjects, Ms Mahmood said.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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