The crazy problem of graduate unemployment and doing our bit to help solve it

(Another digression from my academic posts to write about why I believe so strongly in what I do for a living.)

I was recently listening to a podcast of the excellent Radio 4 programme, “In Business”. It was about a group of job-seeking graduates, telling their stories and receiving advice from some experts. The stories were heart-breaking – motivated, focused young people with good qualifications who, despite their best efforts, have been unable to find jobs. At one point, one of the graduates expressed fairly reasonable frustration that her university had completely failed to support her in starting a career. One of the experts, from the Careers Group at London University, began her response by saying apologetically “It’s tough – you know, universities have thousands of students to look after, and some of them look after the career development of their students better than others.”

At this point, I nearly fell off my chair. This is a pathetic excuse for universities not performing a key part of their role.

Let me clarify a point here. Many people study a subject because it is their passion and then use their transferable skills in the job market. I should know – I earned two humanities degrees, and then pursued careers in finance, HR and business education. But I believe universities do have a responsibility to help their students start or build careers. It is not their only responsibility, but it is a key one, and increasingly they are delivering results that are unacceptable for the people involved and for us as a society.

According to the latest report from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, 8.6% of graduates were unemployed six months after graduating; a figure that masks wide variations in region and subjects studied, and of course takes no account of underemployment. At the same time, research from the Institute of Leadership & Management suggests that 42% of employers feel that graduates are not well prepared to progress into first line management positions – this is also a theme in many other reports.

This is a crazy situation. People leaving university cannot find jobs (let alone good jobs) and employers do not see the skills they are looking for. Employability is not an optional add-on for universities – it is critical. This podcast crystallised for me why I feel so strongly about what I do for a living, because my role is to run the BSc in Leadership, Enterprise & Management, which is a part-time programme focused on career progression. We do not encourage you to visit a Careers Advisor towards the end of the programme to see what might be available. Before starting, students sit a competency assessment based on SHL’s Universal Competency Framework, and get a full, personal debrief from an experienced Talent Agent who will help them identify their strengths and career development plans. During the programme, academic study is supplemented by Professional Practice activities – customised, real-world experiences that are focused on helping them develop the skills they have identified as most important for career progression. We support students in carrying out projects, reflection on the results and recognise their skills development as it takes place. These activities are assessed by presenting a portfolio of evidence, including reflection on development (to my mind, this is a far superior assessment approach than exams or even coursework – a theme I touched on in an earlier post). It is an approach that produces self-directed learners who have the tools and confidence to solve problems as they arise in the future.

Clearly, this route will not be for everyone. There are school-leavers who value the residential experience of university, of full-time study and perhaps living away from home for the first time. It can be a valuable experience and I wish them well. Study is certainly easier when it does not have to be juggled with the demands of a job. But now there is an alternative. Instead of going to full-time study and graduate with, on average, £43,500 of debt and uncertain prospects, you can look for a job straight from school and study on our programme. After a few years, you will have a degree, little or no debt because you have been able to fund your studies (or, if you are lucky, your employer may have funded some or all of it), and far more real work experience than those your age who have studied full-time.

Similarly, employers struggling to find graduates with the skills they need can hire school-leavers and invest in them to bring them to graduate calibre. The employer can help the student customise the programme to give them the exact skills they need to succeed and reap the rewards in terms of enhanced performance and student engagement.

We have to accept that there are students and employers who are not being well served by the current system. There is an alternative.


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