Graduates for the past

I went to a conference last week, and the focus was on how and why we need to have student centred learning. The talks were good, but it was the discussion that provided me with something to think about. I left to look up some of the numbers for myself – they are unbelievable.

The narrative goes something like this (you’ve read it before). Universities are providing the wrong skill set for today’s workplace. So, what are the implications for our students and our institutions?

In my last blog, I used Harold’s diagram that illustrates the difference between yesterday’s desirable skill set, and what needs to be added for today’s highly valued skill set.

To remind you, here are his identified skills (and some I have added) for yesterday and today.

Yesterday’s Desirables Today’s Added Desirables
Obedience Creativity
Conformity Passion
Diligence Initiative
Intellect Willingness to take risks
Attention to Detail Critical Debate
  Public Presentation

I have written that, as Universities, we are brilliant at producing graduates with the skill set on the left. However, we aren’t that great at delivering graduates on the right. As a result, there is a huge business in retraining workers (workplace training) to shift them from the left to the right of the spectrum. In the US, about £125 billion is spent annually to try to get workers where businesses need them.

Because we insist on clinging to an education that trains workers for yesterday’s world, the result is the following:

Sixty percent of graduates over the past five years are under or un employed. This is for Western Europe – in the UK it is 53% while the US is better at 52%. Research has shown that the first job that a graduate gets following university generally sets the level of employment they will enjoy for their entire career.

The graduate premium (the ££ worth of a degree) has fallen to £100,000 (not including student loans). This represents three years of average earnings in the UK. With evidence that graduates will pay up to £70,000 back for their student loans, that seriously reduces the graduate premium.

More worrying is that the premium does not apply the same to all graduates. For doctors and dentists, the premium is worth around £400,000. For communication studies graduates, the premium is closer to £5,000. For history and philosophy graduates, the premium drops to about £1400. And for creative arts students, the premium becomes a burden at about £15,000 (the red implies a loss). This is in comparison to those who enter the workforce at age 18.

Many of my colleagues tell me that the reason this has happened is because there are no jobs right now. Does this mean that there are no problems out there that need talented graduates to tackle? Of course not, but we don’t produce many of these – remember, we focus on conformity and obedience in university.

As we pretend that the world is not changing, the world is actually changing. That seems obvious, but not to the thousands of lecturers who dust off their powerpoint slides for another three hour drone – in between the grant writing and paper publishing (which is the real job).

I asked the panel at the end of our seminar what HE would look like in 20 years time. Because the panelists all work in HE institutions, the discussion took a dark turn for the worse.

It doesn’t have to be that way.