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Ready or Not?

The Scotsman recently revisited the perennial debate on graduates’ readiness for the workplace.

Taking as its starting point the latest annual graduate employment survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the Scotsman leader article argues that many of the best and brightest graduates leave their courses “thoroughly unequipped for the world of work.”

Many people in Scotland - graduates, university staff and employers amongst them - would take issue with the Scotsman’s statement. And they would have good evidence to support them. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show record numbers of graduates in “positive destinations” (statistical speak for achieving their ambitions in either finding work or going on to do further study). Also, last year’s CBI survey of 500 UK employers produced a very different result with 4 in five employers being satisfied with graduates’ skills in numeracy, literacy, communication and problem solving.

Are graduates ready for the workplace? 

The HESA statistics are broken down by nation and so we can see that Scottish universities are (as in so many other areas) doing well. Not only are more Scottish graduates in positive destinations, more of them are in graduate level jobs within six months of leaving university and they have a higher average starting salary. Scottish students graduating from Scottish universities also record lower rates of unemployment than their English counterparts.

In 2017 it’s not just about making students ready to join a long-established company. Each year the SFC-funded Converge Challenge throws the spotlight onto some of the amazing entrepreneurial talent emerging from Scotland’s universities and research institutes. These are staff, students and recent graduates who lead start-up and spin-out companies at the cutting edge of technology. Many of these companies go on to secure investment, market successful products and create great jobs in their local economies.

The Scotsman leader points out that the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ report also says that skills work needs to start early and that higher education should not be expected to carry the whole weight of preparing graduates for work. The Association calls on secondary schools to offer training in skills such as self-awareness, problem solving, interpersonal skills and teamwork.

Scottish readers of the report, especially parents and teachers, will already be familiar with a focus on these attributes. The “effective learning” strand of the Curriculum for Excellence promotes exactly this set of skills, recognising schools’ role in helping pupils develop skills for learning, life and work. SFC is actively supporting this as part of its response to the recommendations of the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce.

I’m not saying that there is any room for complacency in Scotland – far from it. Those of us involved in education in any way are acutely aware of its many challenges; you can add fair access, attainment, retaining teaching and research talent and many other things to skills and employability. Collectively - schools, colleges, universities, employers, agencies and representative bodies - are working hard to address these challenges. As the national funder for both universities and colleges in Scotland, SFC wants its investments to have the best possible outcomes for students, the economy and society.

The key thing we should take from the coverage of the Association of Graduate Recruiters report is the skills that it says employers are missing - teamwork, communications, problem solving and other “soft skills”. Too often we spend time worrying about matching the supply of graduates with industry demand by trying to work out exactly how many people we will need with particular degrees. The reality is much more complex than that. We need to be sure we have a good supply of people with specific technical skills. But that is far from the whole story - other skills are important too.

John Kemp, Interim Chief Executive, SFC - 22 Mar 2017