Universities and other institutions of higher education bear a number of responsibilities towards their students. Some of them are obvious. First, we should foster their intelligence and promote it so that they join the community of thinkers: that part of the human race that understands and can make a contribution to pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, perception and experience. This is rather a pompous way to describe it, but it accords with the history of the university sector and still makes sense today.
Second, we should enable them to obtain the highest qualification or other recognition of which they are capable. It does not mean simply ensuring that they will pass their exams because that is the road to all manner of distortions and dishonesty. In some countries where I’ve worked, this is seen as the main purpose of institutions. Often, students believe it is their right to pass exams and failure gives rise to litigation. But the theory and practice of educational assessment is a separate topic for discussion in it own right.
Third, I would say, it is incumbent on a university to ensure that its graduates are employable people; and this seems to be far more difficult to manage or guarantee. In fact, the word “ensure” is scary in this context. It is a good job that universities are not judged by public funding agencies mainly on the employability of their graduates; their usefulness.
In the days when only 3 or 4 percent of the population attended university, maybe there was a place for dreamers in ivory towers; although probably not even then. Today, when half the population aspires to attend university, there is frankly no room for so many dreamers. Therefore, we are in the business of providing well-qualified, intelligent and useful employees for commerce, industry, public administration and maybe government.
So what is meant by employability? I believe that we should enable graduates to achieve three benefits from their university experience.
- Preparing graduates for the process of obtaining employment. This involves the writing of CVs [resumès or profiles], practising interview techniques, and how to research the company. Most failures in this process arise from poor preparation from the job description, poor discussion skills, lack of enthusiasm to enter the world of work and taxation, and an assumption that the employer will be impressed by the candidate’s degree. This final point seems true particularly of some Management postgraduates including MBA. There are about 1 million MBAs graduating across the world every year. Employers are no longer impressed simply by possession of the degree. It is necessary for graduates to show that they have personality and enthusiasm which is attractive to the employer.
- The American industrialist Samuel Colt is credited with saying, “There are plenty of people who will tell you what do, but a great shortage of people who can actually do something useful.” We should ensure that our graduates are going to be useful, not just big thinkers and talkers. I call this the “screwdriver requirement” – don’t tell me how to wire a plug, get your screwdriver out and do it. So, don’t tell everyone what is wrong with this product or process or set of regulations; get in there and make it right. How we do this will depend on the disciplines they have studied and their aptitudes for employment. Every year, I have offered condensed modules in “Problem Identification and Solution,” in “Making Decisions” and in “Teamwork and Leadership.” These include practical sessions with small realistic cases, and appraisal based on the pragmatism and convincing-ability of the participants. I have found very little difference in aptitude and ability between graduates in management and economics, and those with Physics, English Literature or Ancient History; although often there is a difference in the base knowledge of an industry or sector. More worrying has been the general lack of common sense and aptitude, or even self-interest, frequently apparent from these modules.
- The experience of employment is not just doing as you are told and then collecting salary at the end of the month. It is necessary to understand contracts of employment, personal taxation and pensions, the measurement of your effectiveness and the nature of appraisals, career planning and so on. A young person who leaves school or college at age 16 will have acquired some of this knowledge in a responsible company, by the age of 19 or 20. Graduates, and especially postgraduates, often have no such awareness even at the age of 24 or 25 years. I’ve known top postgrad architects, lawyers, economists and engineers who were quite ignorant of these things at ages close to 30 years. It is our job to get them up to speed as quickly as possible. It does not take a lengthy programme of lectures, placements and visits to convey this knowledge, but some effort is required on the part of the university to counter the potential disadvantage suffered by our graduates.
If universities are to provide education for life, not just for passing exams, then I believe we should engage with the world of work on behalf of our graduates; and prepare them accordingly.
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