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As three-quarters of a million students embark on undergraduate degree courses and a further third of a million on masters courses, how many can be sure the thousands of pounds they are likely to be spending will be worth the investment in providing them with a course that makes them genuinely employable?
Over the past year, admissions tutors at university open days have been faced with what used to be unfamiliar questions. No longer are students content with details on lectures and tutorial hours, the mix of modules, or the blend of coursework and exams. They now have questions such as how will the course develop business acumen? What practical skills will it deliver? How will it provide a head-start in securing employment? And rightly so.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters and the UK government have long lamented the absence of these types of skills in graduates. The problem is that for too long designers of degree programmes have clung to the claim that traditional subjects are not amenable to initiatives that aim to make graduates business-ready.
Such inertia is unhelpful. This current year’s undergraduate admissions season saw demand drop for traditional subjects as the full fees now borne by students awakened more discerning buying traits.
Perhaps this is where more traditional degree courses, such as English and history, can learn from designers of more contemporary ones, such as accounting and finance. After all many arts, humanities and social science graduates are likely to seek careers outside their chosen undergraduate field. Furthermore, financial services employers have the most graduates chasing each vacancy.
So what makes a business-ready course? In accounting and finance for example it is a programme that partners with professional associations and major corporations. That helps to make the journey from study to career feel more real, as well as providing links to experts and potential placements.
Paramount too are regulators. They set benchmark requirements used to authorise firms and individuals. It follows that there is probably no greater driver to career-ready programmes than when a regulator moves. And in the financial sector the UK’S Financial Services Authority (FSA) has done just that.
From 2013, the FSA will raise the exam standard for professionals who wish to carry out key financial services activities, such as advising, dealing and managing investments for customers. The FSA decided in 2006 to lift the standard to first and second year undergraduate degree equivalent. For students, parents and faculty, this has real consequences.
It provides the prospect of combining study for both an academic and a benchmark qualification that graduates can later use to apply for FSA “approved person” status on employment.
The University of Birmingham for example has pioneered a relationship with the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment that brings CISI’s qualification for the new exam standard into the university’s BSc accounting and finance degree. This means new accounting and finance students can graduate with both a degree and the new professional qualification, without taking further exams.
A university might alternatively offer exam exemptions on one or two modules for partial completion of the benchmark qualification.
The right technical skills are one thing, but the regulator also expects improved integrity and values which it intends to test. With the moral compass of business – from bankers to the media – under the spotlight, is not integrity a soft skill that straddles subjects which all students could graduate with?
A business school could launch its own module on professional integrity and open this up to non-business students. Initiatives such as this could help to ensure that all students are given the necessary tools to make them attractive in the market place. Undergraduate and masters students will stand out in the job market and be more able to hit the ground running.
With the average predicted debt on leaving university for UK students rising to £53,000 for 2012, the discounted annual earnings premium for some degree level subjects now looks very marginal. Students are going to demand more in the future. Faculty and universities are going to have to respond if provision of a wide choice of subjects is to remain economic. Amid this rapidly changing climate, UK universities have a responsibility to make sure that higher education remains advantageous for those who participate in it, or we may let down a future generation.
Dr Paul Cox is admissions tutor for accounting and finance, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham.