- Changing recruitment practices and an increasingly competitive graduate employment market are putting new pressure on higher education institutions.
- Improving graduate employability is becoming a key focal point for higher education institutions looking to differentiate.
- Students today are ‘always on’ and mobile. Universities need to be able to engage with them over digital channels.
It’s a simple question with a complex answer: why should today’s students go to university?
Higher education’s role in modern society is wide and varied. On the one hand, going to university is about receiving knowledge from a prestigious institution. Ask most employers, though, and you’ll likely hear that getting a qualification is all about preparing future graduates for the world of work, teaching students the skills and attributes that will help them succeed in an increasingly competitive labour market.
For universities, knowledge for knowledge’s sake and employability needn’t be mutually exclusive. However, a balance must be found between these points while helping students to be proactively engaged – equipping them to think independently, preparing them for the unknown future job market and encouraging them to contribute positively to society.
Whilst we don’t necessarily know what the jobs of the future will be, empowering students to recognise, develop, measure and articulate the value of their transferable skills will be key to their future value. And, in an era of students that are highly digitally savvy, there’s new demand for flexible learning solutions.
Universities must adapt and flourish in this new world.
You don’t have to look closely to see a trend in higher education away from pure academia and towards a stronger focus on skills, employability and capabilities. A significant driver for this is the large business arena, with organisations such as Penguin Random House or PwC having publicly de-prioritised degrees as mandatory entrance criteria¹.
Indeed, it’s becoming less about where or what students studied and more about how they engage and what they can do – demonstrating universally valuable skills and attributes such as leadership, communication, resilience, emotional intelligence, teamwork and problem-solving.
Such skills are the new foundations of academic achievement, regardless of industry category or specialist know-how.
Another reason why higher education providers must move beyond academic awards and towards a focus on transferrable skills is the digital revolution, which continues to disrupt multiple industries. By enabling students to adapt to rapidly changing working conditions, there’s long-term value in embedding employability into the student experience, differentiating students through an increasingly relevant focus on graduate employment outcomes.
Complicating matters is how the tertiary education sector interacts with the labour market. Industries often move much faster than academic institutions can respond, requiring new skills and specialisations long before course content can be developed and taught. This inertia can have flow-on effects, including skills shortages in some sectors, oversupply in others, and altered or unrealistic graduate expectations upon entering the workforce.
In 2015, a survey found the top skills valued by employers included collaboration, decision-making and problem-solving². A 2016 report corroborated these results, further adding strategic thinking and analytical thinking³. How can universities cater to these requirements, embedding employability without having to rewrite the curriculum each time?
The skills within
the student experience
In many cases, students are already participating in activities – both on and off-campus – that expose them to employability skills without even realising it. In these circumstances, it’s less about finding and teaching new skills and more about empowering students to recognise the skills they’re already developing, using tools to track progress and articulate their value to potential employers.
Put another way, it’s about helping students reach an ‘Aha!’ moment, independently understanding what their student experience means for them as they move from one life stage to another.
In some university courses, this kind of skills development is already occurring, with units specifically structured to reflect on what students are doing in and out of class and linking it back to their employability. Having worked across the higher education sector with both local and global universities, however, I’ve noticed this initiative is not yet widespread.
Moreover, this sort of critical self-reflection and personal growth doesn’t always come naturally. Any tools or mechanisms developed to help students undertake their endeavour towards employability should therefore be easy and flexible – making digital a viable candidate.
Students are a highly digitally literate demographic, having integrated digital channels throughout their off-campus lives. So it makes sense for education institutions to develop new ways of learning and teaching, supplementing core curriculum material with contextual employability-related content that helps students make the leap between what they’re studying and how they can use it in their careers.
What were the skills you built as president of the jiu-jitsu club? How can they add value to your potential future role at a professional organisation? What does studying organisational change mean to a small-business owner, or possibly your future customer? How did participating in an industry placement help you develop as a production assistant?
By helping students to track their activities and encouraging them to consider what they get out of it, a digital channel or platform can aid students in thinking differently about what they’re doing, readying them for the moment they need to reach into their skills and experience toolbox when applying for jobs.
As PwC’s own Head of People Consulting, Jon Williams, recently said, “the old model of studying for only several years to acquire lifelong skills is perhaps coming to an end, precipitated by accelerating social and technological change.” This old model is being replaced by a new concept of lifelong learning, bolstered by an explosion in digital learning technology such as massive open online courses and online-only education providers.
Australia is uniquely positioned to lead the way in this new knowledge sector, helping students from all walks of life and at all stages of their career continue learning about themselves and discover their own potential. Using digital technology, there will continue to be exciting possibilities emerging for institutions to reshape the student experience in the midst of a globally connected workforce and increasing demand for highly skilled graduates.
With special thanks to Josh Teichman.