Work skills? They're best learnt on the job

August 29, 2003

The skills sought by employers are best taught by employers, according to a study published last week.

Most of the gaps in graduates' knowledge were specific to the job and could not be addressed by teaching transferable employability skills in higher education, it found.

The study, by researchers at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the Institute of Education, discovered "no evidence of a significant independent effect of the efforts devoted by university departments to the teaching, learning and assessment of employability skills" on graduate employment.

Geoff Mason, senior research fellow at the NIESR, said: "The higher education system is being called on to equip graduates with employability skills. The pressure is coming from employers who are unwilling or unable to wait for graduates to acquire them on the job. But this study shows it's very hard to acquire employability skills in the classroom."

The researchers investigated 34 departments at eight universities in combination with the relevant 3,500 results of the first-destinations survey. They also interviewed 190 graduates and their employers.

They found that new universities were more explicitly focused on employability skills than old ones. There were also differences between subjects, with business studies emphasising employment and history virtually ignoring it.

The report states: "A large proportion of the initial skills deficiencies identified by employers related to areas of skill and knowledge that are best acquired - or can only be acquired - after starting employment rather than beforehand, for example product knowledge and the knowledge and skills required for 'working in this particular organisation'."

The study comes as a survey reveals that only a third of this summer's graduates are expecting a graduate-level job. This is on top of official figures showing the first rise in graduate unemployment since records began.

The survey, by Graduate Prospects, an arm of the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, found that 19 per cent of students are planning to continue their studies on a postgraduate course while 13 per cent of those with no job lined up are planning to take time out to travel the world.

Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects, said the findings, based on a survey of more than 1,000 of this year's final-year students, reflected the increased popularity of taking a postgraduation "gap year".

He said a well-planned period of travel after graduation could help graduates learn skills that would aid their future careers.

But the findings have also fuelled fears that the graduate job market is in trouble at a time when ministers are desperate to win the argument to introduce top-up fees.

Last week, official figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed graduate employment fell from 68 per cent to 67 per cent in 2001-02.

How much does higher education enhance the employability of graduates? by Geoff Mason, Gareth Williams, Sue Cranmer and David Guile for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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