How prepared are British universities to help students graduate ‘work ready’?

With the help of businesses, universities must adapt and cater for a new type of student – one that will likely continue learning forever, as the world of work continues to evolve and support digital transformation

The pandemic has sharpened the debate on the role and purpose of higher education (HE). In a recent survey of UK universities, the university admissions service, UCAS, found that for 50% of respondents, ‘good graduate employment rates’ have become increasingly important when picking a degree – and with good reason. The unemployment rate among new graduates rose by four percent in 2019-20, according to the Resolution Foundation. Given the severity of this challenge, higher education institutions are having to systemically rethink how to equip students with the right skills to stand out in the job market and increase employability.  

Online learning, which enabled colleges to effectively adapt through the start of the COVID-19 crisis, is now turning into a powerful resource for universities to boost student employability. Here are some trends we’re seeing:

1. Universities adapting their curriculum towards employability 

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Job’s Report 2020, 94% of employers in the UK plan to hire new permanent staff with skills relevant to new technologies. The WEF’s top emerging jobs in the UK – data scientists, AI specialists, machine learning, big data, and Internet of Things (IoT) – all call for digital skills. But our discussions with educators in the country highlight deep-seated challenges, including legacy systems and inflexible programmes contributing to a current skills mismatch.  

Responding quickly is important, especially as job market demands continue to fluctuate. Slowly, we’re seeing universities taking action. The University of Cambridge is expanding its digital offering through short online courses to “meet the needs of today’s professional learners”. Others, like Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, the University of Salzburg in Austria and Sofia University in Bulgaria, are using the Coursera for Campus catalogue as part of the institution’s combined campus and online teaching experience, providing additional content that focuses on student employability. 

 2. Businesses supporting the higher education system 

Internationally renowned companies, including Google, IBM, Salesforce and Facebook, are also leading the development of credentials to help students build high-demand skills. By integrating these credentials from industry leaders, universities have the opportunity to open up access to content specifically tailored for skills and digital jobs that major industries are looking for.  

These credentials are particularly promising given recent findings from our Global Skills Report, which shows that graduates and mid-career changers can develop entry-level digital job skills in as little as 35 to 70 hours in high demand fields such as UX design, cybersecurity, social media marketing, and software project management.   

What’s more, many of these industry-led professional courses also offer the option of continuing learning through degree pathways: some of our university partners award credit for learners who complete certain professional certificates. For example, as many as 35% of students in the University of London’s Bachelor of Science in Computer Science online degree have enrolled in the Google IT Certificate on Coursera.

 3. Universities and businesses re-imagining hands-on learning together 

Jisc’s career service Prospects found that just 17% of students undertook work experience in the last year due to the pandemic. This has impacted the development of essential skills that students have traditionally gained through work-based learning. Our own research indicates that when students have the chance to practice using real-world tools in low stakes environments, it can drive 30% higher rates of skill development, and increase  positive career outcomes.

We are looking at a future where education is no longer time-bound. Students will learn when they need to, on a nonlinear path

Thankfully, during the pandemic, new models of virtual hands-on learning have emerged. Institutes like Imperial College London delivered labs and practical sessions remotely and shared their ‘know-how’ for other universities. Students can attend virtual work experiences using platforms like Forage. There was a rise in Guided Project enrolments – our interactive projects with guided instruction using real-world, in-demand tools like Jupyter Notebook, RStudio and VS Code, from learners worldwide.

Many of the above resources emerged as an emergency response, but they will no doubt prove a valuable resource going forward to continue certain forms of instruction in a more scalable format, as digital transformation continues its course.

4. A collaborative shift towards lifelong learning

An overwhelming 87% of UK respondents in Pearson’s Global Learner Survey 2020 see a broader role for higher education in society, saying colleges and universities must do more to help retrain and reskill to keep pace with digital transformation. We are looking at a future where education is no longer time-bound. Students will learn when they need to, on a nonlinear path.  

The question is, can HE meet the needs of this audience with agility and relevance to business and job market needs? From traditionally serving as gatekeepers of knowledge, universities now have to open their doors wider, walking in step with students and employers, as they make higher education sustainable in a post-pandemic world. 


You might also like: The secrets to a successful IT partnership in education


 

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