The higher education white paper proposes that universities should train students for their future jobs. But not all academics are keen
Kim Hughes studies a bar of chocolate in the way that most of us would examine a diamond necklace. She has no thought of eating it, but admires its design and the effort that has gone into its construction. Having completed Nestlé's graduate training programme last year, she is now a "focused improvement specialist" charged with reviewing confectionery production systems.
Hughes competed against hundreds of other hopefuls in a gruelling recruitment process to gain her place at Nestlé, but acknowledges she was lucky to have graduated before her chances of finding work receded dramatically.
Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that among the graduate class of 2010, only 62% were in work six months after leaving university, with a further 7% combining work and further study. This is an improvement on the previous year, but is still well below pre-credit crunch levels.
The universities minister, David Willetts, seized on the figures to justify proposals, outlined in the higher education white paper, to make universities work with employers to develop and "kitemark" courses, and boost enterprise skills training for students. He also pointed to the wide discrepancy between individual universities, ranging from a 100% employment record at the University of Buckingham to 78% at the University of East London, as evidence that poorly performing courses should be named and shamed, so that students could make informed choices about what and where to study.
However, many academics are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of training students for work. Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the elite Russell Group, says its member institutions aim to provide students with fundamental skills, such as problem-solving, analytical techniques, creative thinking and innovation, so that they are adaptable to new work environments. "Developing these high-level skills and qualities, rather than training for a specific job, is one of the vital roles universities should play," she says.
Professor John Brennan, director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University, has studied graduate employability for the past 20 years and sees real danger in "training for work" displacing "education for life" in the student experience.
"Employability of graduates is a shared responsibility between employers and universities, but you really have to consider whether you are in the business of preparing students for their first job or for lifelong careers," he says. "I would say that in the UK, there is very often a four- or five-year transition period between a graduate leaving higher education and becoming established in his or her career."
In one research project, Brennan compared UK and German HE systems, concluding that graduates in each country might be at "about the same point" by their late 20s, the German having spent a long period in vocational higher education, while the Briton gained experience of employment after a much shorter degree course.
"There are real advantages to the UK system of having a short study period at university," says Brennan, "but you have to ask, what can reasonably be taught during a three-year degree and what is best left until graduates begin their career?"
Brennan is the first to admit that providing relevant work experience, such as placements and internships, can be of great benefit. The real concern, apparently shared by graduates, is the government's intention to allow businesses to influence the core content of degree courses.
Before joining Nestlé, Hughes completed a five-year course in biomolecular and medicinal chemistry at Strathclyde University, which included a year in industry. "Experience of the workplace definitely helped me to get on to the Nestlé training scheme," she says. "Even the part-time job I had as a student taught me more work skills than my course, but I don't see employability as something that should be taught in academic situations."
A report by Edge, the education charity, published shortly before the white paper, recommends that universities should consult employers on the design of degree courses and put employability at the centre of strategic planning.
According to the report, employers expect graduates to have attributes including team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving and even managerial abilities, in addition to a knowledge of their degree subject.
"There is a tendency for employers to want their graduates 'oven-ready' and it is not fair that some are let down by their universities and are at a disadvantage to other graduates when applying for jobs," says David Harbourne, director of research at Edge, which commissioned Glasgow University to conduct the study.
"Some academics regard employability as a function of the university careers office and will not sully their hands with it. There is a balance to be struck, but you cannot argue that a student of English literature is not going to think about the job they are going to do when they graduate."
Some universities have embraced the principle of employability skills in their mission statements and websites. For example the University of Hertfordshire proclaims that "employability is at the heart of everything we do"
A different approach is being taken by AC Grayling's proposed New College for the Humanities in London, which plans to charge fees of £18,000. Its graduates will come away with a degree and a separate diploma for an additional course that includes practical professional skills such as financial literacy, teamwork, presentation and strategy.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says many employers have only vague, or unrealistic, ideas of what they expect universities to teach. "For example, how do you teach teamwork?" he asks.
There are risks in allowing employers to influence course design, he says. "Sandwich courses were set up by universities working with industry, but many of them were popular with neither students nor employers. Students were put off their subject because, for example in engineering, they spent a year filing bits of metal in a factory, and it turned out most employers recruited engineering graduates from more academic universities anyway."
Professor Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University, says: "Universities should aim to provide a good rounded education that equips students for the rest of their lives ... The employability proposals in the white paper are dangerous nonsense because they are based on extraordinarily unreliable and poor-quality information."
But universities needn't worry too much, he says. "These sorts of ideas have been a theme of government policy since the 1980s and have never really been implemented successfully."