How Can Universities Prepare Students for Work? | Top Universities

How Can Universities Prepare Students for Work?

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Updated Apr 14, 2021



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How are universities responding to demand for degrees that better prepare students for future employment? Martin Ince, convener of the QS Advisory Board, investigates.

What do employers expect a graduate to be able to do? Do they walk into work on day one and fit straight in, or are they still trainees despite their many years of education?

This question is growing in importance around the world as employment markets are tightening. Last week it was announced that fewer than 70% of Japan’s 2010 graduates had found work by December, a record low. And while this issue is important to all students, it is especially vital for those studying abroad.

Return on investment?

Students make a large personal and financial commitment to their education and expect a high return on both. In the UK, a recent study has shown that in some subjects such as law, over half of the graduate jobs are taken by people who have already worked in the company that hires them.

They have mainly worked as interns, and only half have been paid, admittedly a big increase on previous years. Given that higher education is already a big cost, the need to work for free even after leaving university only makes things even more expensive for students.

It also reduces the pool of labor available to employers to those from prosperous backgrounds and causes political arguments about excluding the rest. Master's degrees are one increasingly popular solution to the poor employment prospects of bachelors-level graduates.

Employers like them because they produce specialists who can be useful quickly. For the student, they offer better employment prospects and, according to a wealth of studies from around the world, higher lifetime earnings even than people with a PhD. And universities enjoy the fees that come with the master's degree boom.

Teaching 'employability'

But is there another way? In the UK, a range of universities old and new, including Surrey, Leicester and Liverpool John Moores, are taking steps to make their graduates more employable.

They teach students how to get a job (dress, interview technique, what makes a good resumé), which is never simple. And more importantly, they help people understand how to operate once they have joined an organization. There are modules on being an effective colleague, managing people and getting things done.

Employers rarely say that graduates know too little about chemistry or accountancy. Instead, they often complain that they do not know how to use their academic knowledge in the workplace.

One recruiter recently told this writer that his company, a major player in fashion retail, finds that about one in three of its graduate hires do not work out. He would certainly not regard this failure rate as acceptable in any other context.

Keys to success

By contrast, universities in continental Europe generally hear this complaint less often. This is partly because their courses involve employers more. Also, they last longer, so the graduates tend to be older and more mature. Adding workplace skills to academic study may benefit students, but it also has advantages for universities.

The QS World University Rankings polls employers about their favourite universities to recruit from. Being in touch with employers is bound to enhance the profile of a university with employers and make them more likely to recruit there. In addition, many national ranking systems use some measure of employment success in their calculations.

Michael Brown, vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, adds that LJMU’s “World of Work” program has another advantage. Because it involves the students who get involved in a live interview with a real employer, it means that many more recruiters know about the university. Again, this is bound to feed into job offers at some point.

Applicable to all subjects?

More problematic is the next step of going beyond these limited voluntary programs. There are plenty of degrees in professional topics such as medicine, law and engineering where standards are set by the profession and where work placements are essential. But it would be a big step to make work experience a compulsory part of a degree.

For one thing, there is no big industry that employs graduates in history, or many other university subjects. More importantly, would it be possible to make these skills a credit-bearing part of a course? One day somebody would be denied a degree after passing all the academic modules but failing the work skills part.

For anyone interested in ranking the world’s universities, this development asks an interesting question. If relations with employers are important to recruiters and students, they ought to be reflected in rankings criteria.

However, employers and employment practices vary widely between countries, so it would be hard to establish a common way of assessing them. In addition, universities with more science, technology and medicine in their subject mix will inevitably show up well on these measures, and we know that the use of citations data already favors these universities in ranking systems.

The solution may be to avoid adding this measure to existing university rankings, and instead to develop specific rankings that cover this aspect of university performance, much as QS is now developing rankings for individual subjects. These include recruiter feedback when possible. Do let us know what you think of this development.

  • From the blog: Vocational Vs traditional degrees 

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