Universities must better prepare young people for labour market

Asia’s universities must align more closely with labour market needs to ensure graduates have the skills and knowledge demanded by employers, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report, one of many released by international and regional organisations this year stressing the need for higher education to produce labour-market skills.

“Higher education is increasingly expected to address the issue of employability,” said the just-released report Improving Transitions from School to University to Workplace.

A rapid expansion of higher education has the potential to complicate employability rather than address it efficiently, suggests the report, which covers 15 countries in Asia and noted that employability can become a major drag on Asian countries’ development in the coming years.

“In the Asian region higher education is expanding rapidly and when you expand so rapidly misalignment between higher education and the labour market grows,” said Gerard Postiglione a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, who contributed to the report. “The consequences of poor alignment are rising unemployment.”

Apart from improving the quality of higher education, more attention is needed to improve its relevance, said Jouko Sarvi, education practice leader in the ADB’s regional and sustainable development department.

“Higher education systems and institutions are under pressure to reform, to provide adequate skills and knowledge for the evolving labour markets. This is increasingly important in countries which are moving towards middle-income country status and aspiring to become knowledge economies, increasing the demand for higher skills,” he said.

“The ability of Asian countries to compete in a globalised world depends on the readiness of students entering university, the availability of qualified graduates for the labour market, and the application of science and technology for creating new products.”

Apart from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, most Asian countries have gross enrolment ratios below that of the US and Europe and even parts of Latin America.

“Since Asia’s [gross enrolment ratios] will continue to grow in the coming years, it is timely to emphasise the importance of improving the external efficiency of Asia’s higher education systems,” the report said, describing ‘external efficiency’ as the level of preparation of university graduates for the labour market and the ability of universities to produce research that can fuel economic growth.

According to the report, the misalignment between schools, universities and the job market is evident from regional employment trends. In Mongolia, vocational college graduates earn more than university graduates. In Thailand where education is skewed towards the social sciences, 80% of firms report difficulties in finding employees with adequate technical skills.
In China unemployment among graduates from top-tier universities was 10% in 2008 and rising.

But there was no single recipe for how countries should best align higher education with the economy.

“Asian countries are at different levels of development. Each country has to look at each part of the labour market that is taking off,” Postiglione told University World News.

“At the top, countries need cutting-edge ideas to keep competing globally,” and that requires high quality research universities, he said.

Meanwhile, second- and third-tier universities must be upgraded to prepare people for the workforce.

“But the problem is that the workplace is no longer a stable, hierarchical structure. So the most important skill in the 21st century is adaptability,” Postiglione said.

How countries can better align higher education to the economy would still need to be worked out. The idea that universities must do more still needs to be accepted.

“Universities are not accustomed to taking responsibility for employability. That stance is rapidly changing and universities must get ahead of the curve, they must elevate employability to an issue for students to consider in their first year of study,” the report noted.

Nonetheless the ADB said “this does not mean that employability should be the first priority of higher education". It said empowering and preparing citizens for a greater role in development and innovation should remain the main purpose of higher education. Higher education collaboration with industry and the private sector to improve labour market links is not the only answer.

“Society needs civil society as well,” said Postiglione.