We’ve all herd it — and many have said it — in a bid to argue that universities should face greater regulation over which students they admit. It’s the familiar claim that universities are producing too many (insert profession here) and they can’t get jobs.
The concept of truthiness springs to mind in recent discussions about graduate employability. Is it really on the slide in Australia? The data suggests otherwise.
Global metrics tell us that Australia performs very strongly on graduate employability. In the latest QS Graduate Employability Rankings, the University of Sydney is fourth in the world. Even in this hi-tech era, it came in ahead of the US powerhouse the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The University of Melbourne ranks seventh in the world — just ahead of Oxford and only just behind Cambridge. Not bad indeed.
The universities of NSW and Queensland came in 36th and 49th respectively, both well ahead of the London School of Economics and Georgetown. One-third of Australia’s universities rank in the global top 200 for graduate employability.
Large-scale national surveys of students and employers by government also confirm the latter are very satisfied with the skills of graduates they hire.
In fact, the largest nationwide survey of this kind, which sought the views of more than 3000 direct supervisors of graduates last year, found 84 per cent satisfaction with their skills. A strong 92 per cent were satisfied with the “foundation skills” of graduates — things such as general literacy, numeracy, communication skills and the ability to investigate and integrate knowledge. And 92 per cent were satisfied with graduate technical skills: their application of professional and technical knowledge and standards.
So the people who directly supervise graduates in Australia’s workplaces are saying they are overwhelmingly getting recruits with both the broad and specialist skills to do the job. From that high base, Australia’s universities strive constantly to enhance graduate employability by including work placements in degrees. And there are some incredibly inspiring programs among them.
A University of Technology Sydney scheme sends architecture students for internships in Los Angeles at a firm founded by Frank Gehry. Curtin has an Aboriginal Community Engagement program that strengthens communities while developing film and journalism students’ knowledge of Aboriginal people, culture and history, and therefore their professional cross-cultural competence. Deakin boasts 150 IT placements every year. A practical unit gives finance students at the University of Melbourne the chance to be supervised by senior ANZ risk managers. An RMIT project gives STEM students the chance to help develop clean water and sanitation with communities in Bangladesh.
To extend these offerings, Universities Australia helped to establish a national strategy on Work Integrated Learning two years ago. Business and education peak groups came together — the Australian Collaborative Education Network, Ai Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Business Council of Australia. Last year, the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Department of Education came on board. The strategy seeks to expand such workplace learning opportunities for students.
Last week, the HES reported a self-selecting survey of people visiting a jobseeker website. The news story suggested only 37 per cent of the university students felt their studies would equip them for their desired job, and 20 per cent felt they lacked some necessary skills.
Apart from the challenge of self-selection, a closer look at the report suggests the takeout isn’t entirely accurate. While 37 per cent of respondents felt they were totally equipped by their degree, another 40 per cent felt they were at least partially equipped. So almost 80 per cent of 264 self-selected students who responded to the survey felt they were prepared, at least in part, for their desired job by their degree. Fifty-two people felt there may be some skills they didn’t yet have. But couldn’t we all say that about any job at any stage of our careers? That’s the nature of professional growth and new challenges.
And if universities are performing their greatest task, students will not be memorising encyclopedic knowledge of all the specific content they are likely to come across in their first year on the job. Rather, they will be learning how to acquire and apply the knowledge they will need.
This may go part of the way to explaining why employers rate student preparedness higher than graduates do. For a graduate, their first professional job will put them in an unfamiliar environment with new challenges. Employers, however, are more likely to recognise graduates’ applicable and translational skills.
Meanwhile, the job market for new university graduates strengthened last year. More than seven in 10 graduates are in a full-time job four months after graduation. And the data shows those with a degree remain better off when landing a job.
As the Employer Satisfaction Survey concludes: “Overall, there appears to be a strong relationship between skills and knowledge acquired by higher education graduates and the requirements of their jobs after graduation. This result affirms the value of higher education qualifications for employment.”
Belinda Robinson is chief executive of Universities Australia.
Published in The Australian.