Are higher education institutions equipping their graduates with the skills they need? Representatives of the European Commission and national governments will discuss this and other such questions in Brussels on Tuesday when members of the multi-country Research into Employment and Professional Flexibility (Reflex) project present the conclusions of their investigations into the role of universities within the knowledge society.
These will include results from the project's third report, The flexible professional in the knowledge society, a survey undertaken in 2005 covering working graduates in 13 countries five years after they had left higher education.
The graduates were questioned on issues including their educational experiences before and during higher education, their move into employment, what their first jobs entailed, characteristics of the occupational and labour market organisation, how they assessed the skills they required - and acquired - and evaluation of their degree courses as well as some personal background information.
Reflex, a commission initiative supported by the EU's Sixth Framework Programme, is a joint project between research institutes in Austria, Belgium-Flanders, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The project was launched following a call by the commission in 2003 for research into the "role of universities within the knowledge society and economy in Europe, and the conditions under which graduates will be able effectively to play that role".
The new report sets out the project's background and describes how the earlier years were a time of differing ideas over what was a 'knowledge society' and the part higher education should play in it.
Tensions arose about the demands made on graduates fulfilling key positions in this knowledge society who were "expected to possess the advanced and often highly specialised knowledge and skills required of modern high-level professionals ..."
They were also expected to be highly flexible and adaptable, able and willing to take up challenges not closely related to the specific field in which they had been trained. Entry to many professions had become subject to an increasingly complex and demanding set of criteria.
Meanwhile, a greater European dimension was influencing national education policies, with the Bologna declaration and subsequent initiatives aimed at the goal of creating a "Europe of knowledge".
The graduate survey follows two Reflex reports published in 2007 - a country study highlighting the main structural and institutional factors that connect higher education and work, and a qualitative study on graduate competences in the knowledge society.
The latest study, first published by French online publication EducPros and accessible on its web site*, finds European graduates generally doing well in the labour market. While only a small proportion ended up in elite posts, most were working in jobs requiring general or specialist higher education and only 4% were unemployed.
Nevertheless, one in four working graduates said their skills were insufficiently used in their work, especially in the areas of innovation and knowledge management. Most affected were graduates with degrees in the humanities and those from southern European countries and the United Kingdom.
Aspects explored in the survey were:
* the demands graduates face and how well they are prepared by higher education to meet them;
* the professional work of graduates;
* changes in the working environment, especially the labour market and in the workplace;
* graduates' role in the knowledge and innovation society;
* their role in the mobilisation of human resources;
* international dimensions of higher education and graduate employment, especially regarding mobility between countries;
* what determines graduates' success and failure in the labour market.
The five areas of competence the report identified for graduate success were professional expertise, functional flexibility, innovation and knowledge management, mobilisation of human resources, and international orientation.
It found most graduates seemed to be adequately prepared, though there were differences between countries. For example, graduates from Italy, France and Estonia experienced "quite serious shortages" of the relative skills.
As well as gaining expertise in their professional field, graduates needed to become flexible if they wanted to remain employable throughout their career. Europe required stronger innovative abilities, and the rise of globalisation demanded they needed greater international skills.
Stressing the need for graduates to adapt to new trends, the report said: "The results cast doubt on the stereotypical image of the autonomous and highly specialised professional who is already an expert in his/her own field at the time of graduation from higher education."
Project coordinator and co-editor of the report, Professor Rolf van der Velden of the research centre for education and the labour market at the University of Maastricht, said: "One of the major findings of this project was the importance of professional skills, which we sometimes seem to ignore. Although you also need to develop generic skills - problem-solving, learning to learn - it is hard to do this in isolation.
"It is really professional skills that breed and lead to professional success; they are the most important thing to develop in higher education, and the most important for the labour market, even if you're working outside the domain in which you studied. That is a clear indication specific professional skills do matter."
Another significant finding, van der Velden said, was that higher education should be more demanding. When asked to comment on their study courses, graduates reported they did not have to work very hard as students.
"This was so for most countries - and, I have to say, especially the Netherlands. Students are not lazy but the problem is they are not stretched in higher education in general to work really hard to succeed and strive for the best."
Inadequate language training was a problem in European higher education, he said: "We found that globalisation and international orientation for students is important and this is being encouraged in countries. But one of the major shortcomings of higher education is the lack of foreign language proficiency, though there was no country where this was not regarded as important.
"For example, in Netherlands higher vocational education there are no programmes or textbooks in English. Once the majority of students have left secondary education, they won't read or write in a foreign language. This holds true for all countries we studied."
Van der Velden said reactions from university representatives in different countries had been positive regarding the survey and the information it uncovered. In general they recognised what had been found.
The report makes a series of policy recommendations it directs to each of the main parties concerned. These include:
* The European Commission should repeat international graduate surveys every five years as they offer important insights into the changing European higher education systems.
* The commission should do more to improve foreign language training, for example by supporting international exchanges in higher education or co-financing courses offered in a foreign language.
* National governments should aim to strengthen both vocational and academic higher education as each has its own distinct value in preparing students for the labour market.
* Each country needs to find its own solutions to problems; despite differences between national higher education systems, outcomes were not dissimilar, suggesting "solutions that work in one country cannot simply be exported to another".
* Students should be encouraged to undertake 'relevant' work experience - jobs that had no relevance to their studies were a waste of time - and governments should provide adequate national student grants and loans systems so students could devote enough time to their studies.
* External flexibility: graduates experiencing several changes of employer should not necessarily be regarded as undesirable, but could be seen as a source of further skill development. National policies should be focused on promoting a smooth transition between jobs.
* Employers should be aware of, and use, the large reserves of under-utilised human capital at their disposal. They should develop better policies to accommodate the feminisation of the graduate labour market as women were more often unemployed and earned considerably less than men.
* Higher education institutions should develop study programmes that were more demanding. Courses should focus on strengthening professional expertise and although student-centred methods such as projects and problem-based learning provided a good base for entering the labour market, courses should not neglect old methods such as knowledge which was of value in itself..
* As well as curriculum design and teaching methods, attention should be paid to assessment, which also drives learning. Written assignments or oral presentations developed competences and prepared students for the labour market better than multiple choice examinations. Credits should be awarded to students carrying out relevant work experience.
* Students should follow their interests and talent. Even if in some fields of study, such as humanities, agriculture and veterinary, students found it more difficult to find a good job, it did not mean they should avoid those areas. They should acquire relevant experience outside higher education through work placements or holding a position in a student or other voluntary organisation. While many students took non-relevant work to cover living costs, it was far better to focus on relevant work experience, or it might be preferable to rely on study loans.
* Having a good social network helped graduates find a job matching their education. Beyond family, friends and teachers, this network should include contacts made through work experience,
* For information on the Reflex project see: www.reflexproject.org
*For the report The flexible professional in the knowledge society go to: : www.educpros.fr
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