We must show university’s true value to disrupt graduate underemployment

We must show university’s true value to disrupt graduate underemployment

By Candida Mottershead, Director of Human Resources, Accenture UK and Ireland

 

Candida MottersheadIt is hard to recall a time when the link between higher education and industry has been under quite as much scrutiny. The burden of tuition fees, rising popularity of apprenticeships and graduate underemployment mean that – to coin a popular management phrase – the sector is being well and truly ‘disrupted’. How universities respond now could well determine their future.

A recent survey by the OECD concluded over a quarter of English graduates are currently overqualified for the jobs they’re doing. Seemingly, university applications are riding high, but students aren’t always being properly equipped to enter industry. In other words, many are landing some way short of where they expected when they first downloaded the prospectus. What, then, is the point? Why would anybody choose to take a degree? And, why would an employer opt for a graduate over a cheaper and, some argue, better practically equipped apprentice?

Very rarely do qualifications alone feature as the top attributes employers are looking for.

On the face of it, there is no point. After all, the continuing rise of AI and other intelligent technologies, for instance, require people that have a very specific set of skills. These are the skills that many businesses today and tomorrow will need, and they cannot be directly acquired purely through studying, say, literature or history.

However, consider the broader picture. Very rarely do qualifications alone feature as the top attributes employers are looking for. Today, mindset is seen as infinitely more valuable and will play a much bigger role in whether a new hire will be successful in the business world.

That’s to say that an appreciation of ethics, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork are of equal importance in the modern workplace. These are central planks of many degree courses, but rarely do I see universities or graduates clearly articulating this to the outside world. The message often gets lost in the sea of rankings, student satisfaction scores and attainment grades.

When speaking to undergraduate students, my number one piece of advice has long been to take advantage not only of the prescribed programme but also the host of wider opportunities that university provides. Be it industry placements, work experience, societies or travel opportunities, all of these create more informed, rounded candidates with the mindset that big employers like Accenture are looking for. They build a broader experience and are a genuine differentiator when it comes to applying to a future career.

We want people who are adaptable, methodical and able to challenge approaches to solve problems.

At more junior levels of our business, during interviews we’re using technology to place people in virtual environments with pressures and challenges to respond to and see how they fare. After all, interview questions are easy to prepare for and qualifications only tell part of the story. We aren’t looking for somebody who can pass an exam. We want people who are adaptable, methodical and able to challenge approaches to solve problems. And in that context, there will be the need for both technology and humanity students in the future as well as Graduates and Apprentices to provide variety in thinking and experiences.

This method is only likely to increase as organisations continue to bring in technology as part of their candidate selection processes. Outside of the traditional professions with specific needs for mandatory qualifications – such as engineering or law – the days of a degree classification alone being the key to success are over, but many institutions have some catching up to do.

What’s needed isn’t necessarily about a total overhaul of the curriculum. It’s more a question of universities and businesses working together more to determine which attributes set young people up for their future careers and ensure they are properly tested, better articulated and as highly valued as the subject itself. All of the hard work is already being done, it is more a question of bringing it to the fore.

 

Published: 16 April 2019

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