Graduate unemployment – Whose fault is it?

When swingeing budget cuts pressure higher education institutions to perform more with less, they have to justify the different purposes that they serve.

Whether that is training people for active citizenship, facilitating social mobility, improving skills needed in the labour market or conducting high-quality research, these activities are weighted against one another in a competition for funds and in creating a more efficient education system.

The rising unemployment of recent graduates in Europe has emphasised the needs of the labour market in connection with higher education reforms.

Unemployment is not caused by education

Three arguments are used to explain the need for reform.

One says that there is a mismatch between skills and labour market demands. Another one says that there is an oversupply of graduates for certain fields. Then some simply argue that the high unemployment rate is reason enough to reform the education system.

A thorough examination of other factors that may affect or be the cause of those problems is missing. The root causes of graduate unemployment need to be further investigated and understood, as they extend beyond the content or quality of education.

Several issues are tied to the debate around graduate unemployment. They include employers’ requests for students to have previous work experience from their sector and the fact that graduates are often offered temporary contracts, paid less and laid off more easily.
An array of issues contribute to a problem that is often structural, including taxation policies, lack of employers’ incentives and poor economic performance.

Initiatives to improve employability

Education should not be used as a scapegoat to fix graduate unemployment – the barriers that exist need to be recognised and tackled and all stakeholders need to accept their responsibility in solving these problems.

There are many initiatives taking place at the European, national and local levels that aim to enhance the employability of graduates.

They range from the recent communication from the European Commission called Rethinking Education and national reforms aimed at including graduate employment as an indicator in decisions regarding higher education funding to the development of career centres within universities.

There is a willingness to do something, but we should ask on whose terms it is done.

As an example, the introduction of innovation and entrepreneurial studies to enhance the employability of graduates has become a staple part of almost all discussions. However, this alone won’t make a difference unless the labour market and society are ready to facilitate the measures needed for students to benefit from such skills.

Are the individuals who are expected to become entrepreneurs ready for it? Is entrepreneurship attractive to graduates? Does it make sense for all fields of study?

This example shows that there is a lack of comprehensive discussion that tackle the causes and possible solutions of graduate unemployment and that involves all stakeholders.

It is obvious that the skills needed in the labour market go beyond these examples and are also gained outside formal education. They include transversal skills that are highly valued by employers, such as communication, a talent to work on projects and in teams, analytical abilities and intercultural competences.

Such skills are not only obtained in formal education and this needs to be recognised by higher education institutions and employers alike. Shifting from a narrow-minded perspective on skills needed and how education delivers a certain level of expertise is vital in driving forward the discussion on higher education reforms and how curricula should develop.

Four country study

The European Students’ Union (ESU) is currently engaged in research and studies on this precise topic. Since 2011, ESU has been running a project on Students’ Advancement of Graduate Employability, or SAGE.

Its main aims are to examine the impact European policy has on higher education reforms, to explore the topic of employability from the perspective of education serving multiple purposes, to collect examples of good practice that promote the enhancement of employability, and to arrive at a conclusion that defines the topic from a student’s point of view.

Four countries are involved in the SAGE study: Denmark, Finland, Hungary and Spain. SAGE will publish study cases based on these four countries that explore national policies in addition to engaging in dialogue with higher education stakeholders to discuss the current situation.

By default, our education system prepares individuals for the labour market by providing them with skills that enable them to enter the market and adapt to life at work. Instead of limiting academic freedom or study choices, we should instead ask if the quality of the education provided is good enough to prepare graduates for the future.

* Taina Moisander is vice-chair of the European Students’ Union.