EU ministers raise graduate employability benchmark

The European Union’s Council of Ministers has approved a new employability benchmark of 82% of EU graduates being employed within three years of leaving education and training by 2020.

The benchmark, which applies to 20- to 34-year-old graduates, is a significant step up from the 76.5% benchmark in 2010.

Dennis Abbott, education spokesperson for the European Commission, said this is an average rate and explicitly not a concrete target for each of the 27 EU countries to reach by 2020.

“It’s a demonstration of the political will that exists in all the member states that this is a serious but realistic target which we have to reach to ensure that Europe remains competitive and a reasonably prosperous place to live. At the moment we’re falling short,” Abbott said.

The decision has thrown a spotlight on one of the key factors involved in conceiving and bringing about a globally competitive Europe from 2020, namely the link between higher education and employability.

While the onus of raising the employability of graduates rests mainly on the EU’s national governments, the commission will try to help them achieve this new target through its two main programmes affecting students – Erasmus and Leonardo da Vinci – where increased investment is now taking place.

“Investment in job placement will rise by 30% this year and next. By 2012, we shall fund 130,000 job placements for young people through these programmes and this will rise to 150,000 by 2013,” he said.

Abbott explained that all the studies undertaken by Brussels showed the growing importance of higher education in the jobs market: “We estimate that 35% of total jobs by the end of the decade will require graduate-level skills.”

This was one reason why improving skills was a key part of the EU’s Europe 2020 economic development strategy. One of its goals is to ensure that the percentage of graduates rises to 40% across the EU by that year. The last review of the 2020 strategy warned that future progress was likely to fall short of achieving the targets set by governments.

The benchmark initiative has been warmly welcomed by the European University Association, or EUA.

Michael Gaebel, head of the EUA’s higher education policy unit, said statistical data proves that tertiary education has a very positive impact on employability, not just through the professional education it provides, but particularly due to the more general skills it develops.

These include critical, analytical thinking, the ability to innovate and conceptualise, and self-learning – “skills that are a good asset for young people entering a labour market that is changing very quickly and will require them to take up a range of different careers during their lives”, according to Gaebel.

He said the 2012 Eurydice report, Key Data on Education in Europe, showed that tertiary graduates found jobs twice as fast as others and were likely to have more stable jobs.

On average, 86% of European tertiary graduates between the ages of 25 and 39 were working, compared to 78% of those with upper secondary qualifications and only 60% of those with lesser qualifications.

The EUA hopes the benchmark initiative will allow a closer look at study-skills mismatches – for instance, the problem that 10% of graduates work under their skills level and the higher academic unemployment of women.

It will also take into consideration the impact of the economic crisis on higher education funding, particularly on higher education participation and the provision of teaching and student services.

Gaebel said the benchmark could support higher education institutions analysing graduate entry into the labour market and help improve learning provision and student services.