Graduate employability and the Mickey Mouse debate around degrees
01 March 2012
Last week it emerged that the unemployment rate was 25% for the 21-year-olds leaving university last year, compared to 20% of 18-year-old school leavers. There is a growing feeling amongst the public that widening participation in higher education has led to a proliferation of ‘mickey mouse’ degrees and a corresponding drop in the quality of graduates. In 2010 a YouGov opinion poll found that 52 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement "too many students are going to university now and it's devaluing degrees".
Worries over the link between widening participation and a perceived decline in graduate quality are still making headlines, most recently during the debate over the appointment of Les Ebdon as head of the Office for Fair Access. Commentators were quick to deride the nature and quality of courses available at the University of Bedfordshire, where Ebdon is Vice-Chancellor, and to brand his approach to access as a ‘model of mediocrity’. So should we be losing faith in the ability of universities to provide useful qualifications to everyone who wants them?
The Wilson Review, published earlier this week, takes a much more nuanced view of the links between student participation and the quality of degrees. The review makes a number of recommendations aimed at improving the way universities interact with businesses, with the employability of their graduates being a key component. Three areas of recommendation are demonstrative of the complexity of the issue.
Interestingly, the review suggests that demand for courses could improve courses if better information is made available to potential students. As part of a new all-ages career service to be rolled out later in the year the government plans to release ‘Key Information Sets’ to applicants. Information on the practicalities of student life at a given institution, such as the cost of accommodation, is mixed with data compiled by Higher Education Funding Council for England on the proportion of leavers who are in graduate jobs within six months. The review has some concerns about the quality of this data, suggesting that there are problems both with HEFCE’s definition of graduate employment and the importance of this as an indicator of outcomes. But providing more information on employability outcomes to graduates can only be a good thing. Accurate and relevant data should provide an incentive for universities to act to boost employability in order to attract the best applicants.
How might universities achieve this? One solution is the wider provision of university-supported work experience. The review recommends paid internships be offered to all students and proposes measures for increasing the number of sandwich courses. Another approach is to incorporate the teaching of relevant workplace skills into the curriculum. This need not be separate from the core degree course, examples being presentation or case-study based assessments. Finally, the report recommends offering greater support to bodies that promote entrepreneurship such as the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs.
Employers themselves are urged to improve the filtering mechanisms by which they match applicants with positions. The concern here is that to some extent companies are not learning from past mistakes when it comes to the criteria they use to recruit, leading them to lament the quality of graduates even while dismissing suitably qualified candidates out of hand. Common filters include stipulating a 2:1 grade or a given number of UCAS points. While such measures certainly reduce the cost burden of sifting through applications extra-curricular activities which indicate strong employability skills are discounted, and in the case of UCAS points in particular there is a risk of disproportionately eliminating able applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The above recommendations could form the three pillars of a virtuous cycle in improving graduate employability. Where a course is particularly effective in conveying vital skills, an employer will recruit its graduates. If school-leavers are better informed of such outcomes this will increase demand for the most employer-friendly courses, hence pushing universities to match their offerings to employer needs. Such a mechanism could prove an effective test of newer degree courses as well as some traditional ones, and ultimately lead to a better fit between the skills of our graduates and needs of our businesses.