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Preparation for life?

Universities are reaping the benefits of inviting employers to help design and deliver parts of their curriculum

Jill Boggiss (pictured) considers how the debate about the ‘value ‘of higher education creates an opportunity for careers professionals to become more central to the overall ‘package’ represented by a degree.

An unexpected broadsheet headline caught my eye last month: ‘Top girls to opt for jobs over degree’. It’s one thing to share casually with friends your view that the days of the gap year and the graduate scheme and maybe even degrees themselves are numbered, but quite another to see, Clarissa Farr, the high mistress of St Paul’s girls school, saying the same thing publicly. She is saying this about the brightest girls in the country.

I find this refreshingly bold and far-sighted. I had been thinking about this for some time in my work with undergraduate business students, but never expected to hear it from a top UK school. It seemed that a chance at Oxford or Cambridge would always be the favoured option for their students, after all that is precisely what some parents pay the fees to achieve. But attitudes are changing. Ms Farr was reflecting out loud that “some now consider a degree to be a waste of time” and suggested that it will become “acceptable for bright students not to go to university”. Even the education editor of the same broadsheet newspaper suggested that choosing not to enter higher education “could be a more exciting and faster route to the top”.

So where does that leave University careers professionals whose job it is to enable students who HAVE chosen this route (and inspire those who might still choose it) to think about their learning in terms of ‘translation’? In other words, appreciating the component parts of how (not just what) they’re studying and understanding how those parts might be seen in a different way to someone outside the university, like an employer?

I think it leaves them with a tremendous opportunity to integrate their work into the curriculum more fully and to make a ‘business’ case to senior staff for a more integrated approach. Many universities are reaping the benefits of inviting employers to help design and deliver parts of their curriculum – an approach that really brings topics to life. It is time now to blur the lines between ‘academic’ study and working practice and allow young people to design the future of work with employers at University, where they can fully reflect on the power of their part in it. Careers professionals are well placed to facilitate this process, and where this is already happening, students value it greatly.

University is of course about more than preparing young people for work, more than just giving them the skills to land a great first job. But in the face of significant fees and a three- year commitment, it needs to offer students not just a great education but the capacity to translate that learning into something that is valued both by the young person AND their future employer and into something that ensures that they emerge self-confident, grounded and determined. 

Making a decision to invest £40-50K in fees instead of finding an employer who will invest in your potential right now seems like a high risk, particularly if you want to study the popular choices of management or business and particularly for young people who aren’t extra-privileged or super-gifted. It might well be a smarter choice for would-be undergraduates to immerse themselves in work experience straight after sixth-form or GCSEs and only return to studies once there is more knowledge to place their academic learning within. 

The career or working world ‘preparation’ work that Eyes Wide Opened is doing with Universities cements the notion that workable partnerships and a continuous, productive dialogue MUST be created and maintained between employers, students and educators. Helping young people translate their learning in a way that employers can understand and see value in is vital. The years that young people give to life at University need to be recognised as a valuable investment. Students need more guidance about what will required of them beyond their degree and University professionals need to know how to provide it.

After all, is a degree course really ‘good value’ if the student leaves University unclear about what unique ‘package’ they have to offer, how to tell their story to potential employers with confidence and conviction and how to make fulfilling, meaningful career choices that suit their knowledge, skills, and strengths (and capacity to translate all that into someone who is instantly employable)?

If Universities are slow or reluctant to address the issue of enriching academic studies with more personal development and workplace skills, whatever the subject, employers may become the new educators. This may mean that youngsters can’t see why they should go or what they will get for their time. Higher education will face considerable pressure to prove its worth at the expense of helping students to learn and grow and Clarissa Farr’s predictions may become a gradual reality. For many students, this may be the very best choice.

Jill Boggiss leads Eyes Wide Opened, a career-coaching business working with young people at a crossroads. Top coaches from business, the arts and the voluntary sector run reflective and highly practical courses and workshops – in and outside schools, colleges and universities – that help education-leavers get clarity and direction and develop the self-awareness skills, mindset and action plans to achieve their goals. www.ewopened.com 

 

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