Strengthening the connection between education and employment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Employability is a major demand driver for education
  • There is considerable evidence from markets around the world, however, that college and university programmes do not always track closely with labour market requirements
  • Many institutions are now moving to better align their programmes with labour market needs, in part via new services that aggregate large amounts of data on graduate outcomes and employer requirements

For many students and families, education is the path to new or better careers and, ultimately, to a better future. This expectation is a key driver of demand for education at all levels, and research in the field clearly demonstrates that employability is both a major motivation for study abroad as well as a significant factor in selecting an institution or school.

Similarly, post-study work rights and opportunities for immigration have also consistently been shown to play an important role in student decision making for study abroad.

These major demand drivers reflect an underlying shift in the role of educational institutions today, and the expectations placed on them by students and families. Speaking at the Higher Education Policy Institute late last year, OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher summed up the situation: “Over the last thirty years, the focus of higher education has changed significantly, primarily in response to the changing nature of work. A rapid increase in jobs requiring higher-order cognitive skills has created a worldwide need for more graduate employees. As a result, the priority previously given by universities to inducting a small minority into research capabilities has given way in many countries to providing up to half the population with the skills and knowledge relevant to employability.”

A recent report from the British Council further places this shift in the context of international education in noting that, “International student mobility patterns are evolving based on increased education provision globally and students’ inclination towards programmes with tangible employability outcomes.”

These observations point to both a growing responsibility for higher education institutions with respect to the employability of graduates. They also underscore the opportunity for education marketers and recruiters to place a greater emphasis on employment outcomes, both in supporting students’ readiness for and transition to work and in tracking and reporting of graduate outcomes.

There is considerable evidence from markets around the world, however, that college and university programmes do not always track closely with labour market requirements.

  • Earlier this year, leading corporations and other employers in Russia filed a petition with the Ministry of Education and Science calling for measures to improve the quality of higher education in the country, and to better align the programmes on offer with the requirements of the Russian economy. The seriousness of the situation is illustrated by official statistics from Moscow indicate that up to 51% of unemployed youth in the city are graduates of higher education institutions. Irina Arzhanova, the executive director of the National Training Foundation, put it to University World News that “a lack of serious analytics during the design of their academic courses and programmes currently remains one of the major problems of Russian universities, which results in too many graduates not being able to secure jobs.”
  • Meanwhile, unemployed graduates in Zimbabwe have been publicly demonstrating in the streets, and campaigning online, in protest of poor employment prospects. Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Jonathan Moyo said earlier this month that the protesters lack the skills required by employers and that, “A lot of people with key responsibilities across our economy have the wrong skills.”
  • Another recent survey in Canada found that one in three employers feel that universities need to do more to prepare graduates for the world of work, particularly in regard to so-called “soft skills,” such as communication, writing, and strategic thinking.
  • Even more striking, a 2015 analysis by the consulting firm EY estimated that as many as 75% of India’s higher education graduates are not considered employable, with the situation particularly acute outside of the small number of top-tier institutions in the country.

Many of the issues swirling around these protests and troubling statistics point to the need for greater transparency with respect to reporting employment outcomes at the institution or programme level. They also highlight the need for stronger links between education programmes and the skills in demand within local or national economies. And now a new category of service provider has emerged in recent years that aims to give educators and education marketers new tools in this respect. These companies harness the power of big data to provide new insights into labour market requirements as well as the outcomes for graduates.

College Measures, for example, provides rich data for prospective students that allows them to evaluate the ROI (return on investment) of individual programmes at US colleges. The service aggregates information on graduate earnings with other outcomes data to promote greater transparency in student decision making. It provides some data directly through regular reports and data services and has been deployed to date on dedicated sites for states such as Colorado and Texas.

Other institutions are using new data services to better match their programmes and courses to employer requirements. Burning Glass Technologies is one such service. It scans millions of job openings in the US, across a reported 40,000 job-listing websites, to monitor demand for specific skills and qualifications.

The company highlights the example of Lone Star College, a Houston-based institution with 90,000 students that began working with Burning Glass data in 2010. In the years since, Lone Star has closed three degree programmes, revamped several others, and launched nearly 30 new degree and certificate programmes targeted to emerging areas of employer demand. “With real-time, labor-time market data, we can conduct a scan of any occupation. We know who is hiring and what competencies and technical skills they need. We are making sure our programme choices and curriculum remain current so that our students are trained and ready for jobs employers need to fill,” says Lone Star Associate Vice Chancellor Linda Head.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has also noted that the use of labour market and graduate outcomes data is becoming more widespread among US colleges. Along with Burning Glass, other specialist firms in the field include Emsi and Chmura Economics. “[When it comes to] determining where to spend limited work-force-training dollars and what programmes to offer that will benefit students and the community, I think that being faster in collecting data will help colleges make these difficult decisions,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Whether via such data services or otherwise, other education systems around the world are also taking up the challenge of boosting graduate employability. The Canadian province of New Brunswick, for example, announced a new task force on experiential learning earlier this month that aims to better equip graduates for the world of work.

We can expect to see more such initiatives in the years ahead at the national, state, or local levels. Indeed, this may well be a new area of opportunity for collaboration between international partners, data services and educators alike. Given the increasing importance that students and families now place on employability, the scale and scope of this opportunity will only continue to grow.

For additional background, please see “Is employability data an untapped resource for student recruiters?,” “Is employer engagement in education the next source of competitive advantage?,” and “The link between employability and international student recruitment.”



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