Student employability – the silent revolution

As the government’s review of higher education funding puts the spotlight on high levels of student debt, we need to talk about how to properly support graduate employability.

The Prime Minister’s launch on Monday of the long-awaited review of post-18 funding has put the spotlight like never before on the value for money that degrees now offer – and who should pay. Crippling levels of graduate debt, employers reporting chronic skills shortages, and the demands of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) are together prompting universities to consider anew what they can do to make themselves more appealing to prospective students. Yet, a silent revolution is beginning to bubble under the surface, as institutions look for ways to make their courses future-fit, including preparing students for the world of work.

Education = employment

While the UK’s poor productivity continues to hold back the economy, the skills gap is coming under ever-greater scrutiny. Much of the commentary around the review as focused on the need to win over younger voters, frustrated by soaring costs. However, one of the reviews’ four explicit aims is the need to ensure that higher education is producing the skills that employers want, Last weekend, the newly appointed Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, told Andrew Marr that he supported greater variety in tuition fees, to reflect the value of different degrees to society.

But it is not enough for students to just study ‘practical’ degrees like medicine that then lead to a greater chance of employment, they also need support in making themselves more employable, in an increasingly fluid recruitment market.

Many higher education institutions – particularly those offering business and management degrees – are already showing progress in this area, building employability modules into their courses, some of which result in professional qualifications. Providers, such as Coventry University, are working closely with employers and professional bodies such as the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), to have professional skills development baked into their provision. The TEF’s recognition of enriching courses with professional bodies will further incentivise providers to build employability and wider life skills into courses. Even those going on to further university study, or an entire career as a researcher, will require similar skills as they still need to secure those jobs.

The MBAs of the 21st Century

As more and more universities embed employability skills into their provision, some of the more targeted innovations can be seen in the rise of the degree apprenticeship. Once seen as “what other people’s children do” according to the PM’s speech (quoting review panel member Alison Wolf), apprenticeships are slowly entering public awareness, and perhaps even favour, with degree apprenticeships a promising option. As a result, we are beginning to see a greater number of universities offering degree apprenticeships.

The apprenticeship levy has meant that businesses are looking at new ways to train their staff in order to utilise the funding, and providers are responding in kind. The recent announcement that the University of Cambridge intends to develop an apprenticeship offering, demonstrates the growing seriousness of the commitment to technical education. Yet technical education can still draw criticism, with “outdated attitudes” highlighted by the PM.

Learning to lead

While STEM graduates top most employability measures, HE often fails to plug one of the greatest skills gap that employers are looking for – management and leadership. According to the OECD, this is the number one determining factor in productivity. Yet, 2016 research by Investors in People reveals that poor leadership and management is costing the UK £84bn per year in lost productivity every year.

UK businesses will struggle to perform to their potential if their staff have not been trained in how to lead, or helped to develop the skills they need to manage the tasks of others. New employer-designed degree apprenticeships offer such training opportunities.

However, the use of apprenticeship levy funding to pay for management degree apprenticeships has led to some criticisms for “rebadging”. While it may be the case that some of the training already being used by employers is being incorporated into new more formal offerings, this misses their inherent value. By formalising such training, through government validation, expert influence, and high-quality standardisation, the level of training being offered to the next generation of managers will not only benefit individuals, but their employer and the wider economy.

And while we must certainly provide training for younger people looking to enter higher education or the workplace for the first time, we also need to foster the life-long approach to learning Theresa May described. If not, we fall into the trap of the ‘accidental manager’, whereby employees reach a position within the workforce without having the knowledge or the skill set to help them succeed.

As scrutiny is only set to increase on the HE sector, we now have the opportunity to adopt some changes to help make higher education work for all. As businesses start to contribute to the content of courses, and students start to seek out ways into the workplace (and out of debt, one day, maybe!), there is huge scope for the sector to lead the way. Collaboration between higher education, employers and professional bodies is key to ensuring that courses work for those at all levels, from a student who doesn’t yet know that they need to learn how to lead, through to the accidental manager who is all too aware.

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has created a new awards programme to recognise good examples of HE and business working together to improve student employability. The inaugural awards are tonight.

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