Universities need more than employability stats to attract ambitious school leavers

Published: January 29, 2015

“Universities are no longer competing among themselves for applicants, but are increasingly up against blue chip companies. ”

In the midst of fierce competition for students, many universities are tripping over themselves to showcase their credentials in ‘employability’ – an inelegant term that essentially refers to how likely you’ll be to get a job at the end of a particular course of study. There is an obvious rationale for this, with the vast majority of university applicants no doubt thinking predominantly about career prospects when choosing which institutions to target. However, figures released this week suggest that options other than university could be growing in credibility among ambitious school leavers.

The figures, which feature in the winter edition of Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) bi-annual survey, reveal that 72.7% of employers plan to offer opportunities directly to school-leavers, an increase on 68.2% last year and 54.7% the year before that. The figures add credence to earlier reports of employers developing talent in-house rather than relying on universities to nurture work-ready candidates. The impact of this trend is that universities are no longer competing among themselves for applicants, but are increasingly up against blue chip companies.

For Universities, part of the answer may be to focus less on short term employability and more on longer term career opportunities. As things stand, the most commonly cited measure of employability is the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, which offers a snapshot measure of what a sample of university leavers are doing six months after graduation. An inherently imprecise measure of long term graduate success, universities relying on it as a quality indicator could be inadvertently triggering scepticism over the career-enhancing qualities of courses. School leavers may start to reconsider their assumption that higher education leads to better jobs..

Instead, universities should seek to engage potential applicants in a narrative that illustrates long term career prospects. As I’ve previously written, a well told story is likely to be much more effective than a simple presentation of key messages. There is also some scientific proof of the value of storytelling in corporate communications. Universities should take these principles on board to articulate how their graduates can expect to enjoy fulfilling and rewarding careers over the long term. Simple case studies of alumni successes at various stages of their careers – from the entry level hot prospect to senior high-flyer – could demonstrate the long term value of a course. Likewise, more counter-intuitive examples of alumni heading in unexpected directions could signal that study opens up a variety of options. This sense of career flexibility could be a useful counter point to the more linear progressions offered by training in employment.

One of the attractions of bypassing higher education and heading straight towards employers could be the sense that work experience is more valuable than academic success. There is clearly something too this – the AGR survey highlights the lack of confidence some employers have in the work-readiness of many graduates. Gaining experience in the realities of the working world is an enticing prospect for the school-leaver looking to get ahead of the pack. Many universities have recognised this with the introduction of sandwich courses and placement years, and indeed, courses co-funded with employers. These features should be woven into the narrative, combating the idea of a binary choice between an academic or employer led-route to career success.

The ultimate advantage universities have over employers is the prospect of joining a vibrant academic community that enhances career prospects while giving students space to develop as people. Communicating this takes more than a few simple ‘employability’ stats.

Mark Fuller, Associate Director
0207 089 2083

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