Given the increasingly bleak outlook for graduates of our universities, what can universities be doing to ensure that students who come to the end of their time at university are placed as well as possible to be able to embark on a fulfilling and satisfying career?
Here, in no particular order, are my suggestions:
- Make it compulsory for all students to take some careers advice. They may be adults, able to determine their own actions, but this does not mean that they will have had the opportunity at home or at school to develop the skills necessary for them to be able to access proper guidance and advice. Do they know themselves well enough to know what they might consider doing with their lives? Do they know how to ask for help and where to turn?
- Ensure that all students do voluntary work and/or paid work – preferably a mix – so that they have a strong CV when they leave. This can be done in vacation time – there is plenty of scope for this then. Employers want experience; a degree alone does not prove that you can cope successfully in the workplace. Nor does it show that you have the people skills that are essential in practically any job. Everyone needs work experience on their CV covering their university years.
- Invest in careers services. Universities are the absolute final line between study and the workplace in this country, and they shouldn-t just leave careers advice to chance. It is a phenomenal waste if a student comes through an excellent education, from the age of 3 to the age of 21, and then doesn-t know what to do with it. A tired office tucked away will not cut it; careers services should be professional.
- In investing in careers services, make sure that all staff in the university are on board and up to speed with what careers outside academia are about. The Oxford University Careers Service, for example, which has been extremely well-developed in the last 5 years or so, has specific sections of its website targeted at current staff. Universities need to make sure that all their lecturers, professors and educators of all types are fully aware of the need for learning in their hallowed institutions not just to be an end in its own right, but a means to another end.
- Engage with the students as individuals. There is a tremendous danger in vast organisations that the individual becomes lost and that teaching and examining exist for their own sake – and for league tables – rather than as part of the rich tapestry of the existence of an individual person. Universities need to remember the person at the heart of what they are doing, and consider why he or she is reading this particular subject. Careers advice will flow much more naturally as a result, as part of a holistic approach to education.
Above all, though, universities need to be extraordinary places of learning. They need to teach incredibly well, and they should teach stretching, challenging subjects. They must avoid any risk of being accused of dumbing down. Only by ensuring that the students who graduate have developed the ability to think deeply, creatively, innovatively and concisely, will universities truly demonstrate their worth in the world. These are the real skills our graduates need to be successful contributors to our national economy.