Leader comment: A degree is no guarantee of work skills

New report says around half of all employers find graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
New report says around half of all employers find graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
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For the vast majority of today’s undergraduates, a university degree is viewed primarily as a necessary staging post on their career path.

Yet many of the best and brightest graduates leave their courses thoroughly unequipped for the world of work.

According to a report by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), around half of employers believe graduates lack essential workplace skills when first hired.

Sensibly, the AGR says valuable qualities such as teamwork and problem-solving should be taught in schools and not just left to universities, by which time it is often too late.

But higher education has a role to play in this, too.

We no longer live in an era where a small number of school-leavers attend university with the guarantee of a graduate job at the end of it.

The massive rise in the number of people going to university in the 1990s and 2000s has led to a situation where employers can afford to be extremely picky. Put simply, in most cases a degree on its own is no longer enough.

Many graduates find themselves having to embark on postgraduate study or unpaid internships just to get a foot in the door.

The introduction of higher-rate tuition fees of around £9,000 a year for those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has also introduced a greater financial imperative for students to find well-paid work at their end of their course.

Overall, 49 per cent of the 174 AGR members surveyed said “graduates generally do not have the skills expected of them at the point of hiring”.

The AGR called on secondary schools to offer training in skills such as self-awareness, problem-solving, interpersonal skills and teamwork.

The suggestion is sound, particularly as many school-leavers will not go to university and could also use the training.

But there is also plenty universities can do to prepare students for the workplace.

Every degree is different, but all students should be compelled to undertake some form of work experience or internship.

Furthermore, long-established links between universities and leading recruiters need to be made to work for all students not just those lucky enough to have contacts.

Careers fairs and graduate recruitment events are fine, but are too easily ignored by those busying themselves with dissertations and exam preparation.

Training in so-called “soft skills” – basics such as communication and presentation – should be integrated into the university curriculum.

A university education is not simply about preparing students for a job: It is about teaching young people to be analytical, to think for themselves and to view the world differently.

But it would benefit both graduates and society as a whole if we had university-leavers ready and able to make a valuable participation to the economy.