A continuing high level of unemployment among graduates, where 10% of the total graduate population failed to find any form of work last year, provokes the question: are universities adequately equipping students with the transferable skills required for the workplace?
'Traditional degrees' have been under fire for not properly preparing young people for the world of work, and many have suggested dropping the three years of research and academia in favour of something more workplace-focused and vocational such as that announced by Vince Cable earlier this summer.
Yet Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects, the leading provider of information and opportunities for students and graduates, takes a more positive view of traditional degrees. He said: "A lot of the more traditional degrees, such as English and History, also provide people with the skills required for later life. Sometimes it's necessary for a careers advisor at a university to tease out of the individual just what they have learnt on their degree which they can translate into the workplace." He added: "Degrees are just one step in the journey."
The new proposed two-year degree programme could also have an effect on the employability of graduates. Recently, the business secretary Vince Cable announced that a more cost effective two-year degree programme would soon become routine, allowing students to live at home, attending a local university with more tuition time and a shorter summer break.
Although this would make getting a degree more affordable, it does pose certain risks to employers. Nicola Fitzgerald, the manager of the UK Vodafone graduate programme, explained: "As a graduate recruiter, it will be important for us that two year degrees aren't simply a 'dumbed down' version of the three year degree. In the rush to get people into the workplace we should be mindful that university offers great opportunities for broader learning that should not be lost."
This could include such things as living away from home and meeting people from a variety of different backgrounds, providing graduates with invaluable experience which they can then transfer into the workplace. This is particularly crucial to employers as many graduates often have little work experience and understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, so any experience they do have is extremely important.
One of the central issues surrounding graduate unemployment is that graduates seem to have unreasonably high expectations of employment after graduation. Lucian Tarnowski, founder and CEO of BraveNewTalent, a social networking platform designed to enable graduates to connect with employers, agreed. He explained: "What I've often said about this generation of graduates, is that they are often more confident than they are talented and they've been brought up with a lot of self-belief, a lot of self-confidence and expect that if they have a degree they can just walk straight into a job when in reality it's a lot more difficult."
Technology also plays an important role with graduates' expectations of employers. According to research run by Redshift in partnership with Orange, 45% of graduates expect to be able to access email and work files remotely. Social media is also significantly important to graduates as 43% feel that the use of networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are key to building up contacts for professional development. Therefore, businesses need to ensure they have the right technology in place to enable graduates to work more effectively.
Nevertheless, there are also many other assets which graduates can bring to a business or company which makes them prime talent for employers. One of the biggest advantages of employing graduates is that their salaries are cheaper in comparison to the salaries of more experienced candidates. Lucian Tarnowski added: "It's been proven that hiring graduates straight out of university is beneficial to businesses because salaries are cheaper and business needs can be met with better quality output at a lower cost, so time and time again graduates have been shown to be very strong investments for employers to make."
However, the recession meant that many companies decided to cut their graduate schemes in order to save money, again making the competition for entry-level jobs amongst graduates extremely fierce with 70 applicants per job.
Despite this, some companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the largest private sector employer of graduates in the UK, continue to employ 1,000 graduates a year, believing that this makes good commercial and business sense, suggesting how valuable graduate recruitment can prove to be. James Chalmers, who is head of talent and strategy, said: "Recruiting talent is not a switch you can flip on and off. We're committed to graduate recruitment because we believe it's a long-term investment in the future of our business."
This all seems to suggest that universities are not providing graduates with enough transferable skills for the workplace although this is less to do with the degree programme and more to do with graduates not having the opportunity to take part in enough relevant work experience. The new two-year degree programme does not appear to provide an adequate solution to this. So, whilst employing graduates is important for the ongoing development of businesses, it is clear that graduates need to demonstrate willingness to learn and universities need to help and support students in getting relevant work experience as this is as important as the degree itself.