• Fraser Harper

Education – Employment Links: increasing the value of a degree?

Ernst and Young drops degree classification threshold for graduate recruitment: ‘No evidence’ that success at university is linked to achievement in professional assessments, accountancy firm says. (Times Higher Education, August 3rd 2015)

So said the headline in a THES back in 2015, but there is more to gaining a degree than either the subject or its classification. Let’s start with the employer perspective and the skills profile which maximises their #employability. There are numerous surveys of employers asking them to state the skills they want of their incoming graduate recruits and in Table 1 we have rank order listing of skills. The table shows us that only one skill remains at the same rank over the five year period (complex problem solving) and two skills have been lost (quality control and active listening) and two added (emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility).

It should be possible to match employer’s generic skills needs with what is offered by successfully completing a degree. Table 2 attempts to do this for four degrees and uses a generic employability skills listing derived from employers by the UK Confederation of British Industry. Rather than use the learning outcomes and curriculum of a specific university degree, the Subject Benchmark Statements of the Quality Assurance Agency are used for Higher Education. What is interesting is the relatively low level of match with degree matching the skills in around 50% of cases (see Totals line at the bottom of Table 2). Two caveats need to be added: while the match between a degree and employability skills might not be great, a graduate might well acquire employability skills by engaging in other activities at their university; and, employability skills need to be updated annually and matched to curricula (learning outcomes) on an equally regular basis.

There must be a better way of probing the direct value of a degree as equated by the range of employability skills acquired. We have two ways of addressing this challenge. First, by articulating the skills required at occupation, career pathway, sector and overall economy. This can be achieved by using the occupation content data provided by the US system called O*NET. Second, by treating degree course curricula as data it can then be matched to one of the employer #competency profiles. By using accurate metadata derived from a degree course curriculum it is possible conduct this matching. We can refine this in a number of ways by also taking graduate attributes lists (profiles what all graduates possess when they leave university) and also using one of the competency libraries or once for specific major employers.

Just taking one example using the graduate attributes of Glasgow University and seek to match them across to the competencies defined by the OECD and the UK Civil Service. Glasgow University define 10 graduate attributes while the OECD identified 10 competencies and the UK Civil Service 15 competencies.

By taking one of the graduate attributes, ‘reflective learners’ we can match across to 6 of the OECD competencies, and 5 of the UK Civil Service. If we were to show the graduate attribute, ‘confidence’, we find a match across to all of the competencies listed in Table 3.

While these matchings show real promise, they do not reflect the degree of proficiency in performing a particular skill or demonstrate a competence. Plus, there is a danger of focusing on what a student might acquire during a degree course rather than what is actually acquired and a student is assessed on. And when specific skills are assessed it is not clear as to which standard is being used. Over time these challenges can be addressed and so providing a dynamic way of matching degree curricula and employability skills.

#competences #employability

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