Graduates shouldn’t be pigeonholed by their degree subject, but should be able to walk confidently into a number of careers

This piece originally appeared on the guardian Higher Education Network

There should be nothing alien in the idea of a maths graduate running a hospital department, or a classics student going into engineering. The evidence suggests that employers are recruiting graduates for jobs outside their specialisms.

Unfortunately, if we always assume that particular subjects must lead to particular jobs, too many students will believe that the choices they make at 16 and 18 will define their career path for the rest of their lives.

There are, of course, career paths that demand certain qualifications, but the choice isn’t as clear-cut as you might assume. Only in medicine and its allied professions are you likely to stay firmly rooted.

Students studying, say, English, creative and design courses or engineering are just as likely to end up in teaching, healthcare or estate management as something more obviously tied to their course.

Employers want better-prepared graduates

As there are fewer certainties about what career a degree will lead to, employers want graduates to be better prepared for the workplace. Universities need to be thinking about the skills they will need to do well in a job.

For example, although there are plenty of Stem graduates, employers say they do not always have the additional skills needed.

And it’s not just employers, students are asking to be trained to be employable too. A NCUB survey found that 92% of students want placements, work experience and internships to be a part of their university experience.

However, less than half have had access to them, and a quarter want more links between their university and business.

Universities need to think of graduates’ long term careers

The implications for the higher education sector are clear: create graduates who are more agile, have a solid understanding of how the workplace works and can see how their skills fit into it. And prepare them for the idea of moving across jobs and sectors.

The way employability is currently measured puts too much emphasis on universities’ ability to get graduates into employment that matches their degree discipline, rather than on their readiness for a career.

A better interpretation of graduate career paths and the sharing of knowledge between universities and businesses would leave the higher education sector better placed to tackle the issue where it can.

NCUB’s report into career portfolios suggests that we should find a better way of matching up students with employers. We need a model that takes into account the work-readiness and flexibility of graduates.

Businesses and universities must share responsibility

We must stop giving universities employability ratings based on the first job a graduate gets, or the one they are in just six months after graduation.

Instead, we should measure the advancement of graduates early in their careers, through promotions and upward moves across sector and role. We will then have a better picture of how universities are doing and how much value higher education is adding to the workplace.

Responsibility for filling this gap in knowledge must be shared between businesses and universities, with awareness on both sides of the complexities of the other.

Employers are not seeking changes in higher education provision that would risk losing specialist knowledge. But they want educators to pay more attention to research showing which skills are needed by different sectors, and to respond quickly to it.

Some successful examples of collaboration

The specific needs of each industry make it impossible to create one-size-fits-all solutions, but successful university and business collaborations have included:

  • Paid student internships in industry such as the Santander universities scheme which places students and graduates in small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
  • Employees being paid to study, with modules developed specifically for the funding employer, such as a Sheffield Business School and Nestlé collaboration which sees students study part-time for a tailored degree while working full-time for the company.
  • Joint curriculum design, such as the joint working between the British Medical Association (BMA) and University of London where BMA careers services were able to identify skills gaps that the university could help to fill.
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