Are university graduates fit for purpose?

Are university graduates fit for purpose?

Summer holidays present those working in higher education with an excellent chance to read up on books and reports that tend to pile up during the rest of the academic year. In preparation for the dialogue, ‘Are university graduates fit for purpose?’ taking place during this week’s EAIE Conference, some very recent political documents regarding higher education in Europe struck my eye. And I think they underline the importance and timeliness of this dialogue.

In July this year, candidate president for the European Commission (EC), Jean-Claude Juncker, presented his Political Guidelines to the European Parliament. Five years ago, when his predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso did the same, his statement was full of education, research and innovation. Education was about to be brought further within the remit of the EU as part of the EU2020 strategy, with a special emphasis on the need for a growing number of higher education graduates.

Changing priorities

Five years and a full economic crisis later, the newest document focuses on skills instead of education. The text speaks of the race for innovation and skills as a global challenge; efforts to boost digital skills and learning across society; ensuring workers to have the skills industry needs; promoting labour mobility especially in fields with skills mismatches; and using legal migration policy to address shortages of skills. All of these issues are of relevance to the labour market and the battle against youth unemployment. European Parliament agreed, and Mr Juncker was appointed as the new president of the EC.

Other recent European documents also prove to be very interesting. In June the EU Council of Ministers adopted the 2014 Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs). These are based directly on national reform plans submitted by each EU member state, and show how far the involvement of the EC in national (!) education policy goes. Regarding higher education, for around half of the countries, we see recommendations to address issues such as: skills mismatches, improvement of labour market relevance, enhancing cooperation between higher education and business or other relevant stakeholders. They all add up to better addressing the needs of employers regarding their future staff, and the needs of students/graduates as future employees. And next to this, the urge for stronger cooperation between universities, research institutions and business to contribute to international competitiveness.

Stronger skills focus

Now I think these documents mean two things. Firstly, skills mismatch and labour market relevance of higher education are clearly high on the political agenda of the EU, but also of many European countries. Secondly, it is very likely that European programmes (such as Erasmus+), will get a stronger skills-orientation in their use for policy development. Given their importance for internationalisation activities (from mobility to policymaking) we need to be aware of the consequences. The European Commission has already developed a prototype of European Skills, Competences, Qualifications and Occupations (ESCO). Is this the next level beyond the European Qualifications Framework (EQF)? Earlier this year a consultation took place on the development of a European Area for Skills and Competences. And my guess is, mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ will have a higher focus on skills impact and on stronger links between education and business/employment. Lastly, next to the European Commissioner for Education, we will now also have a Commissioner for Employment and Skills.

For the upcoming EAIE dialogue taking place on Wednesday morning, this gives much food for thought and invites some key questions:

  • What is the nature of the skills mismatch?
  • Are we failing as higher education institutions to provide our graduates with the right competences (knowledge, skills and attitudes) for the labour market?
  • How can the higher education sector cooperate better with industry and other employers?
  • Should employers play a bigger role in the provision of professional higher education for their (future) employees?
  • Is autonomy of higher education at stake, in view of the degree awarding power of higher education institutions?
  • What about 21st century skills? Are they part of the solution and therefore in the learning outcomes?

I am sure many more questions will be raised by participants during the dialogue. The audience is warmly invited to raise issues and questions using the Twitter hashtag (#EAIEdialogue1). A truly excellent panel will engage in the dialogue, and my expectation is that the discussion on the skills mismatch will further help to prove the added value of internationalisation of higher education.

Jurgen Rienks, Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Netherlands