Employability and university rankings: London conference reveals what employers want from schools

“Students are investing in education because they expect a monetary return, which means gainful employment.”
– Marian Mahat, LH Marting Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management, University of Melbourne

This was just one of the many powerful statements heard at the IREG-7 Conference held last week in London, which drew approximately 175 attendees from a wide variety of countries around the world. This year’s theme was “Employability and Academic Rankings” and most of the sessions concentrated on “what institutions are doing to bridge the increasingly evident global skills gap.” We heard straight from the mouths of employers on what they are looking for in college graduates and how schools are preparing students for “the real world.”

Despite the recession, many jobs left unfilled

Let’s face it: the competition for the best job opportunities is intense. Beth Jenkins, UK & NL Recruitment Marketing Advisor at Shell International revealed that globally, her company aims to hire 1,000 graduates a year, and they receive 100,000 applications. For the UK alone, they receive 20,000 applications and have 150 positions to fill.

Yet a survey by the UK’s Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) showed that in 2012, over 30% of graduate recruiters had unfilled vacancies. Stephen Isherwood, Chief Executive at AGR, cited bad press as one reason for the openings. Barely a week goes by without another headline bemoaning high unemployment or questioning the value of a degree. He says fresh graduates are getting discouraged, and don’t even bother applying for roles. When they do, many times they have a “sloppy approach” and don’t thoroughly research the job or industry, hence, they arrive to interviews unprepared.

Mr Isherwood confirmed the abundance of vacancies also exists due to a skills shortage, and he identified various high growth sectors in the UK, including:

  • IT/Telecoms: 40%
  • Public sector: 22%
  • Energy: 18%
  • Banking/Financial Services: 16%
  • Accountancy/Professional Services: 12%
  • Engineering: 9%

Furthermore, a recent report from McKinsey Center for Government (“Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s Youth into Work“) found that 61% of employers (surveyed in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) “were not confident they could find enough applicants with the right skills to meet their business needs.”

The lack of “work-ready skills” is a challenge often mentioned by employers around the world, and several presentations offered suggestions to help tackle this issue.

What employers want from schools… and students

Christian Schutz, Global Head of University Relations at Siemens AG in Germany (a company that hires between 35,000-75,000 people a year), cut to the heart of the matter when he said:

“Some universities think it’s not their job to prepare students for work, it is the employer’s job. We totally disagree.”

The employers who presented at IREG generally felt that soft skills are harder to gain and teach, hence, in their hiring process, they tend to focus on them more than on hard skills or knowledge. They feel they can teach the latter on the job and that universities prepare students well in this capacity. Instead, Mr Schutz argued:

“Higher education institutions play a key role in developing well rounded, well educated and socially responsible individuals. Curricula should include topics and methodologies that shape a mindset that is based on open mindedness, critical thinking, and creativity as well as sustainable and entrepreneurial behaviour.”

He went on to outline some requirements of a good academic education, such as state-of-the-art courses that incorporate interactive teaching and examination (not just multiple-choice exams or rote learning), international exposure, as well as integrated practical experience (e.g., internships or co-op programmes such as those of Canada’s University of Waterloo in Ontario, whose programme is the world’s largest post-secondary co-op). Mr Schutz prefers internships that last at least four months, whereas Rachel Schroeder, Head of Employment Marketing Strategy at Airbus Group, prefers a 12-month time frame.

One thing all the employers at IREG agreed upon, was that the more an institution can foster soft skill development, the better. Some of the desired student competencies include:

  • An ability to work collaboratively with teams of people from a range of backgrounds and countries;
  • Communication skills – speaking, listening, and writing;
  • A high degree of drive, resilience, and enthusiasm;
  • Leadership skills;
  • The ability to influence others and resolve conflicts;
  • A capacity to develop new skills and behaviours according to role requirements;
  • Flexibility to change in line with a rapidly developing market and global economy;
  • An ability to absorb complex information quickly;
  • A high degree of self-awareness and self-management;
  • An openness to and respect for a range of perspectives from around the world;
  • Multicultural learning agility (e.g. able to adapt and learn in any culture or environment);
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge such as tech skills, language skills, etc.

The above list of skills and traits employers are looking for should hardly come as a surprise, “but it’s the level of those skills that makes the difference,” said Ms Jenkins. She pointed out that unlike most job seekers, new graduates don’t put measurable indicators into their CVs, yet quantifying their achievements and providing evidence of results would significantly strengthen their applications.

Do MOOCs matter to employers?

With such a strong emphasis on soft skills, the subject of MOOCs was bound to come up. Would employers value an education obtained completely online just as much as a traditional education? The answer was a collective “Yes.”

Mr Schutz stated plainly, “If they have the skills, then we don’t care where they come from,” and the speakers agreed that everyone should have equal opportunities when it came to the application process.

However, Mrs Schroeder cautioned that upper management might actually be the hardest bunch to convince, unless a university endorses a MOOC degree or those in upper management enroll in MOOCs themselves and can experience online-only learning firsthand.

How employers and schools are working together

Institutions and employers are beginning to work together more often, and many of the IREG speakers shared best practices for such collaborations. (For additional examples of institution-employer engagement, please see our recent article, “Is employer engagement in education the next source of competitive advantage?“)

From an employer’s perspective, Ms Jenkins spoke at length about Shell’s marketing activities at student fairs and on university campuses through the use of Campus Ambassadors, as well as their efforts to build relationships with schools’ Careers Services, Student Societies, key academics, and researchers. Companies such as Shell invest US$10,000-30,000 per graduate – and this is only the cost to hire a person, not to train the new hire.

With this kind of money at stake, many brands are looking to foster goodwill with students and professors. Mrs Schroeder gave a few examples such as the Airbus University Board, which was created as “a strategic initiative to structure company-wide university relationships and allocate resources to support our strategic goals.” Airbus also teamed up with the GEDC (Global Engineering Deans Council), a global association of 300+ engineering deans, to create an award for university personnel called the GEDC Airbus Diversity Award. In addition, Airbus runs a biennial contest for students called “Fly Your Ideas.”

Mrs Schroeder recounted how Airbus also goes into universities to help them develop courses to give students the knowledge and skills they are looking for if they can’t fill specialised positions. Curriculum design is a more involved level of engagement which perhaps might not be possible for all institutes, but many times, employers come to campuses and present short skills sessions or give guest lectures.

Several colleges have also started to invite employees to serve as mentors for students, such as Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University. Angela Yung Chi Hou, professor at the school’s Graduate Institute of Educational Leadership and Development and Dean at the Office of International Education, gave an insightful overview of Taiwan’s recent initiatives around research, access, and excellence. Her school has “developed a new curriculum assessment system, set up a university-wide internship programme, and built a plan for Global Talent Cultivation.” In order to prioritise student-learning outcomes and practical on-the-job training, all colleges at Fu Jen, including their liberal arts college, have been asked to establish a university-industry cooperation internship committee. Fu Jen believes that “higher education institutions need to enable students to acquire a set of core competencies in order to enhance their employability skills before graduation… and employability skills should be addressed in course design and with the involvement of employers.”

But not all countries are so advanced in their education-employment linkages. Olesya Lynovytska, Director of the International Projects Center Euroosvita in the Ukraine spoke about the need to reconcile higher education with the world of work. She highlighted that there is a “marked disproportion between the demands of the job market and the training quality of university graduates.” She further revealed that, via rankings survey data, Ukrainian employers have an unwillingness to participate in the educational process (60%) and a disinterest in joint research development with universities (70%). The universities fared no better: 85% of them showed a lack of interest in the future employment of their graduates, 65% demonstrated a lack of university openness, and other concerns included an unwillingness to contact employers, a lack of initiative, and a lack of regulatory framework.

Luckily many schools are surveying graduates and using alumni outreach programmes to assess students’ employment outcomes. Of course, it is hard enough to get this information and feedback from students who remain in the same country to work, let alone get feedback from those who have gone to work abroad, or those international students who returned home to find work. Surely another benefit of increased employer-educator ties would be a school’s ability to obtain a higher response rate to such surveys – data which can then be used in recruitment efforts by both parties.

How schools and employers use rankings

Always a contentious issue, the subject of university rankings was an important thread in many of the IREG sessions. For example, Ms Lynovytska laid out various advantages of rankings for institutions, such as their ability to indirectly reflect a school’s effectiveness in terms of educational offerings and current labour market demands. In addition, they enable a school to more effectively assess the quality of their graduate’s training based on their professional competencies.

Mr Schutz said rankings are useful to Siemens to examine a school’s education and research capability, as well as its openness and willingness to collaborate with businesses on research. But there is one main caveat to many rankings: “The employability of graduates should be measured and incentivised in the rankings,” insisted Mr Schutz.

Some rankings systems do just that, such as the newly launched U-Multirank.

Round-up of rankings news

In what appeared to be a collegiate rankings showdown, key figures behind four of the highest profile rankings systems gathered together on stage to share recent news, the majority of which reflected a trend towards more regional rankings.

Bob Morse, Director of Data Research at US News & World Report discussed their new Arab Region University Rankings Project, expected to be released this autumn. The eligible countries were chosen based on the language spoken (Arabic), not their geographic location.

Phil Baty, Editor of Times Higher Education (THE) discussed THE’s new initiatives, such as the 100 Under 50 Rankings which came out on 1 May 2014, THE’s BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings which were released last December, and THE’s Asia University Rankings, whose next results are due to be released on 19 June 2014.

Ben Sowter, Head of Division with the QS Intelligence Unit, talked about their latest contest Reimagine Education, which awards innovative higher education teaching that has improved learning outcomes for students.

But the perhaps the biggest buzz was centred around Gero Federkeil, Member of U-Multirank Consortium, Rankings Manager with the Center for Higher Education; and Vice-President of IREG Observatory. Described as a “multi-dimensional, user-driven university ranking,” U-Multirank does not award one overall score to a university, nor does it create one top list. Instead, it enables people to use an online platform to compare schools based on various performance measures. U-Multirank puts users in control by letting them manipulate the data to create all kinds of reports and comparisons. For example, an agent could create a few reports for subjects most in demand in his market and then make adjustments for individual students or encourage them to use the online tool themselves.

As their press release outlines, “U-Multirank received €2 million in EU funding from the Lifelong Learning Programme for the years 2013-2015, with the possibility of a further two years of funding for 2015-2017. The goal is for an independent organisation to manage the ranking on a sustainable business model thereafter.” Questions circulated at IREG as to the details of this future business model, as well as U-Multirank’s data collection process. It will be interesting to see how U-Multirank works through these issues while it continues to establish itself as a ranking system in the years ahead.



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