Creating work-ready graduates

Kenny Nicholl, director of higher education at Canvas explains how focusing on the student experience creates work-ready graduates

The recent news that elite UK universities have tumbled in the global rankings has been met with surprise by the education industry. A new study by The Times Higher Education newspaper compared student satisfaction levels for the first time, and prestigious Russell Group institutions – more used to being measured on the quality of their research – have suffered.

The study has sparked debate among critics who have long felt that many universities are de-prioritising teaching excellence in favour of research. The intention of universities, they argue, should be to build a culture with teaching and learning at its heart, and allow students to judge the learning experience – in the same way as they compare a faculty’s research rating – of institutions across the globe. 

While leaders within the Russell Group caution that this new ranking doesn’t paint a comprehensive picture of their offerings, it does put under scrutiny the experience provided by UK universities to their current and future student intake. When content and resources are freely available online, many, as reflected in this research, believe the real value of colleges and universities is the student experience they offer. Putting the teaching and learning at the heart of any education strategy, they say, is vital.

When it comes to employability, collaboration between industry and academia has long been hailed as a way to ensure graduates are ready for work

This view was affirmed by our own recent research ‘Work Matters’, which showed that more than half (57%) of UK sixth formers rate teaching quality as the most important factor when selecting a university. These students view the calibre of teaching as significantly more important than more measurable assets, like physical infrastructure or course design – and are eager to see how their future teachers stack up before applying to or taking up a university place.

Lifelong learning and employability

While robust and credible assessment of teaching quality will take time to develop through piloting and review, new Government set accountability measures that will weigh lecturers on the learning environment are set to shake the industry – and prompt institutions to refocus their efforts.

We believe that, at the heart of this change, must be the ambition to create a rounded education offering – focused firmly on ensuring students are engaged, motivated and equipped with skills that will help them beyond the classroom. And absolutely crucial to supporting this long-term approach to student satisfaction is to focus on employability – equipping students with the capabilities needed to enter the workforce.

Our Work Matters research paints a stark picture of the status quo. Less than a third (31%) of undergraduates believe their studies are relevant to the workplace, and one in four (23%) says their course is doing little to prepare them for work. And with more than half of sixth formers prioritising employability in their course selection, universities must act now.

As well as serving as a warning to industry, our the research points to concrete ways that universities can seek to build a rounded, experience-led, learning environment, focused on creating work-ready graduates:

1.    Connectedness and collaboration

Students at both sixth form and undergraduate level believe that the ability to collaborate is key to a positive learning experience. 72% of sixth formers told us that they want to be able to collaborate online with students at the same university and 61% want to do the same with students at other institutions

The most savvy universities are already stepping up to this challenge. They seek to connect people with information, people with people, and people with things – and drive more comprehensive connectedness. Techniques being used range from peer to peer learning, reciprocal teaching, and even parent collaboration  – and result in empowered and engaged learners, able to benefit from true, rounded, collaboration and the diverse input that this brings.

When it comes to employability, collaboration between industry and academia has long been hailed as a way to ensure graduates are ready for work. Often stymied due to issues such as a lack of trust over intellectual property, uncertainty about the potential benefits of working together, and the difficulty on both sides of finding the time for initial exploratory conversations, this research demonstrates that both parties must now come together for the greater good. The majority (55%) of students report that they are looking for courses developed in close partnership with employers, and want to have the ability to collaborate with them directly (80%). 

2. Prioritising digital learning

As technology becomes more central to the learning experience, helping students to work flexibly, hone investigative problem-solving skills, and connect easily with teachers and peers, universities are expected to provide the latest equipment and programmes.

However, while sixth form students expect a high level of technology provision when planning their university career, undergraduates report that they are not as well equipped as they could be. More needs to be done to make these tools widely available for students to use-  helping them prepare for an increasingly digital workforce. 

For forward looking institutions, tasked with equipping graduates with the skills to compete in today’s digital economy, the possibilities of tech use are great. Distance teaching, sophisticated virtual learning, and the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from around the world are just some of the transformational benefits that the most tech savvy universities can offer. 

3. Flexible learning

Using technology as an enabler, universities can deliver more flexible and engaging anytime any place learning – helping students to hone their independent learning ability.  Over a third (36%) of sixth formers want to be able to learn anytime, anywhere and from any device, and more (42%) of undergrads report to want a blended learning experience than those who currently receive it (33%).

It’s clear that students no longer want to be tied to the lecture theatre – instead they expect to access course materials whenever and wherever they happen to be.  And no longer is the lecturer expected to impart knowledge in a linear fashion, at the front of a class. Digital technologies are empowering students to learn in their own way – investigating and solving real-world problems, rather than ingesting and regurgitating rote material. This new breed of engaged, accountable and motivated students, taking charge of their own learning journey, are well placed to flourish in a competitive and fast paced working world.

In summary, we know that competition for attracting students to universities is fiercer than ever. The universities that are able to refocus on student experience will attract and retain the best talent, and maintain their place in the league tables. By focusing squarely on employability, through the delivery of more meaningful courses, powered by technology adoption, UK institutions can meet the needs of their student base, as well as delivering a differentiated student experience which sets them apart from the competition. 


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