CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Colleges and universities "need closer links with employers"
Colleges and universities "need closer links with employers"
Colleges and universities need better links with employers to ensure that vocational higher-education courses meet their skill needs, says a report from the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA).
Vocational Higher Education: Does it Meet Employers’ Needs? reveals students’ beliefs about employers’ confusion about vocational qualifications and their “blind preference”, in some sectors, for graduates.
More than half a million students are studying vocational higher-education courses in English colleges and universities – more than 460,000 in higher-education institutions (mostly universities) and about 130,000 in further-education colleges. Many of these are sub-degree courses – vocational undergraduate studies that do not lead to an honours-degree qualification. These include Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Certificates (HNCs), Diplomas in Higher Education (dominated by nursing), foundation degrees and a wide range of professional qualifications. These sub-degree students – most of them studying part time – represent about two-thirds of all undergraduates in higher education.
The LSDA research set out to explore how well existing education and training provision at this level met employers’ skill needs at higher-technician and associate-professional levels. It also sought to discover the views of students on how they think employers value qualifications, plus the views of careers advisers and course tutors in colleges and universities.
Students were concerned about the fragmented nature and lack of visibility of vocational HE qualifications in the job market, stressing the problems in communicating a clear identity for these qualifications.
Those who were employed reported instances of condescension among degree-holding employees in their workplace, and those on full-time programmes believed that employers preferred degrees, although this was not necessarily reflected in the research with employers.
Students’ motivation for studying was less concerned with what employers thought than with the belief that more qualifications per se were the key to better jobs and recognition. But many – particularly those following courses that were clearly part of a “degree track” – appeared to have no professional strategy and little idea of whether the course would be helpful in finding a job.
Employers varied in the value they placed on different higher-level qualifications. Some (notably those in construction and engineering) saw benefits in recruiting those with HNDs and HNCs as they were more likely to have developed technical and practical skills. But others (notably the larger employers in the business sector) preferred to recruit graduates, particularly where greater breadth or generic behavioural and analytical skills were needed.
There was some evidence of a trend among larger employers (particularly in general business) away from asking for specific HE qualifications towards methods of selection that identify candidates with personal qualities such as high motivation as well as academic achievements. Many have ceased to operate corporate graduate-recruitment programmes and instead are trying to identify suitable recruits in other ways.
Many employers preferred their own in-house training schemes to external qualifications offered by colleges, universities and other learning providers, stressing the need to demonstrate a strong business case for using external education and training. Those who did take that option, however, did not generally distinguish between different types of providers, tending to make choices on the basis of cost and how the courses or programmes meet specific needs.
The role of professional bodies in certain sectors was seen as crucial for boosting and maintaining the credibility of vocational higher education. The research revealed an emerging renewed emphasis on chartered-technician status (related to sub-degree programmes) which might affect employers’ recruitment and training practices. But it also warned that actions taken by some professional bodies to raise the academic requirements might damage the standing of more vocational education and training programmes that, arguably, reflect the needs of industry better than degrees.
Many colleges lacked awareness of labour-market opportunities for their full-time vocational HE students and tended to promote further study as the next logical step rather than progression into employment.
In universities, there was evidence that careers staff paid less attention to full-time vocational HE students than to full-time first-degree undergraduates.
Maggie Greenwood, LSDA research manager, said: “Vocational higher education is very fragmented and serves diverse functions – as a route into professional membership, a pathway to more advanced higher education, a way of meeting employers’ needs in niche areas and improving professional practice, and as a vehicle for individuals seeking advancement or a career change. This research demonstrates the importance that employers place on higher-level vocational qualifications, even though this varies across different occupational sectors.
“But the fragmented nature of vocational HE and the need for greater clarity come across very strongly. It is important that all sub-degree qualifications are seen not just as a stepping-stone into full degree programmes but also as a route into employment. Colleges and universities need to improve their relations with employers to ensure that they meet employers’ needs for education and training.”
The report recommends that employers be given much clearer information about the distinct roles and levels of the range of HE qualifications currently being provided as well as new ones. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, need greater knowledge of employer needs (notably at higher-technician and associate-professional level) and must engage more with employers in ensuring that provision meets their needs.
There is a need for more emphasis further down the education system on advising young people about the whole range of further-education and training opportunities available. The continuing emphasis on progress to first degrees does not fit well with a policy that seeks to achieve parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications.
The report, by Brenda Little et al., is available from: Information Services, LSDA, Regent Arcade House, 19-25 Argyll Street, London W1F 7LS.