Opinion

Why the education system leaves graduates unemployable

6 min read

16 October 2012

There is a miscommunication issue between the education system and the working world. Jess McGreal gives her take on how to give UK students an education that goes beyond the classroom.

At last week’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham, the prime minister condemned the previous Labour government for the creation of “a toxic culture of low expectations, that lack of ambition for every child, which has held this country back. You’ve heard of pushy parents,” he said, “well – this is a pushy government.”

Cameron insisted a privileged education for all could be the answer to youth unemployment, but his speech ignored a fundamental problem: the miscommunication between the education system and the working world. This problem is engrained within the British school curriculum and higher education as neither institutions equip young people with the tools they need to secure an interview, let alone a job. 

The labour market 2012 report published by the office of national statics, ONSA, shows the number of graduates working in unskilled jobs has increased since 2007. Popular recruitment agencies ask for at least an upper-second class honours in a good discipline to apply for receptionist roles. 

Attending university as a right of passage to adulthood has become a norm and obtaining a degree is nothing out of the ordinary anymore. In 2012 a first-class honours student can graduate to become an insurance advisor or estate agent – occupations a school leaver previously filled. The working world is a cold, grey and unfriendly place for many graduates. 

It is not to say students should be spoon-fed information. As adults, undergraduates should be active and use the resources available. However, desolate campus careers centres and hidden “career support” pages on institutions’ websites cannot be the only option. Surely, within lectures, seminars or dissertation meetings, departments should include some future career information – or have better advertised career events that give student’s some insight into the working world.

“We go to university in the hope that it will increase our opportunities” says Kaltrina Bylykbashi, a recent graduate and currently editorial intern. “We hope that a degree will not only prepare us for work, but for a job that is desirable and intellectually stimulating. The problem lies in the fact that you are rarely told where the entry level positions are or how you would begin a career that is subject specific. I have found that when applying for positions, I rarely get asked about grades or my course, but more about my work-experience. I think that universities need to evolve and understand that these are the specifications that students are looking at when applying for work and that they should include work-based schemes that are subject specific.”

However, the miscommunication between the education system and the working world is born within the school curriculum. A compulsory two week work experience placement can hardly prepare a school leaver to join the British workforce. Career development is continuously discussed in secondary education, through skills tests, careers meetings and PHSE classes. Although pupils are given food for thought, they fail to gain employable skills.

It is essential that the coalition will go a step beyond their promise of a “privileged” education for all. The unemployment rate for school leavers is around 20 per cent, according to ONS data. This is more than double the graduate unemployment rate. Vocational apprenticeships could be both the education systems’ and unemployment’s saviour. 

Is university, then, not necessarily the best route into business? Last Thursday, the BIS released statistics showing that the number of young people taking up apprenticeships has reached 502,500 in the last academic year. Many employers still believe the government is not doing enough to promote vocational training, as they are struggling to find graduates with the right skill set for business.

Some argue that the government has to do more to help employers take on high quality apprentices. “From the day I completed my apprenticeship, I have never been out of work and I am sure it’s the same for many others,” says Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers. “The challenge is to get employers to give young people the chance to become apprentices and learn the essential ‘on the job’ skills they need.”

At the Labour party conference at the beginning of this month Ed Miliband highlighted the need to address the “forgotten 50 per cent”: the young people that do not enter higher education. Labour argued that to allow vocational training to thrive, a wider cultural change needs to take place. Education needs to allow young people to gain employable skills and this can be done through vocational courses. But to do this the qualification can no longer be seen as second-class to exam results, but genuinely respected by both education system and employers.

The government need to implement drastic measures to bridge the gap between education and work. Graduates from red brick universities continue to refill supermarket shelves, and school leavers are without work. It is essential students receive an education that goes beyond the classroom.

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