Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Access, Retention and Employability
Date de publication: 22 mai 2014. Version complète: en. L'essentiel: en. European Press Release.
CHAPTER 4: EMPLOYABILITY AND TRANSITION TO THE LABOUR MARKET
Employability plays a central role in the European Commission's higher education reform strategy (European Commission, 2011) as well as both in the Europe 2020 (European Commission, 2010) and the Education and Training 2020 ('ET 2020') strategies. Within the ET 2020 strategy, the Council of the European Union adopted a benchmark on graduate employability in 2012. According to this benchmark, 'by 2020, the share of employed graduates (20-34 year olds) having left education and training no more than three years before the reference year should be at least 82 %'. While in this context the term 'graduates' refers not only to those finishing higher education but also to graduates with upper secondary or post-secondary, non-tertiary qualifications, both public authorities and higher education institutions have a prominent role in achieving this goal.
 European Commission policy stresses the role of higher education in equipping graduates with the knowledge and core transferable competences they need to succeed in high-skill occupations, and the importance of involving employers and labour market institutions in the design and delivery of programmes, and including practical experience in courses. It also emphasises the importance of better monitoring by institutions of the career paths of former students in order to increase the relevance of programmes (European Commission, 2011).
Against this policy background, this chapter discusses national practices aiming to enhance graduates' employability and to ease their transition to the labour market. The first section provides a brief introduction on various conceptualisations of employability, both in theory and in national practice. The second and third sections then examine some ways in which higher education institutions are seen to be able to fulfil expectations regarding labour market demand and graduates' employability. In the fourth section, the chapter turns to practices of evaluating higher education institutions' performance in these respects. The final section presents the conclusions.
4.1. Conceptualising employability
Employability is a complex concept encompassing many definitions and approaches. For this reason, this first section discusses some assumptions and limitations of the different conceptualisations of employability. In doing so, the section emphasises the importance of employability for all students and graduates, and also places employability within the widening participation agenda. The section also outlines the potential role of higher education institutions in enhancing employability, and shows how European countries define this term in their policy documents.
4.1.1. A focus on graduates' success
Definitions of employability focus on graduates' transition to the labour market after finishing higher education. There are two main types of definition: employment-centred and competence-centred. An employment-centred definition is used for example within the ET 2020 process, in the abovementioned 2012 Council conclusions on employability. These Council conclusions define employability as 'a combination of factors which enable individuals to progress towards or enter employment, to stay in employment and to progress during their career'. Similarly, within the Bologna Process, the term
is understood as 'the ability [of graduates] to gain initial meaningful employment, or to become selfemployed, to maintain employment, and to be able to move around within the labour market' (Working Group on Employability 2009, p. 5).
An alternative (or complementary) approach is to focus on the skills and competences higher education students gain during their studies. For example, Yorke (2006, p. 8.) defines employability as 'a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations'. Such skills and competences are usually understood as needed (and demanded) by employers. In essence, the 'student exhibits employability in respect of a job if he or she can demonstrate a set of achievements relevant to that job' (Yorke 2006, p. 8).
There are many existing classifications of such relevant skills and competences. There are the socalled 'generic', 'transferable' or 'key skills', which are not necessarily related to specific professions, but generally enable graduates to find jobs and move around in the labour market (e.g. communication skills, entrepreneurial skills, 'learning to learn' skills, but also being able to work in a team, etc., see e.g. Teichler, 2011). In addition, there are skills and competences related to specific professions or the subject of study (e.g. medicine, law, etc.).
In terms of all definitions, however, it has to be emphasised that employability does not equal employment. Employment-centred definitions can sometimes blur the difference, especially when using employment rates as proxies for measuring employability. Competence-centred definitions – especially if formulated as in Yorke (2006) – can help to clarify the relationship between employability and employment: certain skills and competences make graduates 'more likely' to gain employment, but do not guarantee it.
Indeed, employment certainly does not only depend on the quality of education graduates had received during their studies. On the one hand, changes in the general state of the economy and the labour market are the most important determinants of job opportunities. On the other hand, there are many factors that influence the employment prospects of an individual, which means that not all graduates who received the same education have similar labour market opportunities. Such factors include the mode of study (full-time or part-time), the students' location and mobility, graduates' previous work experience as well as their age, gender, ethnicity or social class (Harvey 2001, p. 103). Regarding the last set of factors, the discriminatory practices graduates might face in the labour market are often overlooked by employability discourses (Morley, 2001). For example, as shown by Moreau and Leathwood (2006), 'non-traditional' learners (based on their ethnicity, socio-economic background, disability or other characteristics) are systematically at a disadvantage when looking for jobs in the graduate labour market (see also Gorard et al., 2006).
The policy issues related to employability therefore have a dual aspect. Firstly, it is crucial to strengthen employability for all students, and this has been identified as an issue of importance for all public authorities as well as for the EU 2020 agenda. It is also necessary to recognise that employability is an integral element of the widening participation agenda in higher education (Thomas and Jones, 2007). Widening participation does not stop at providing access to students from underrepresented groups (or in other words, to 'non-traditional' learners), but has to include measures ensuring that such students complete their studies and have a successful transition to the labour market (Ibid.). This highlights the complex role of higher education institutions in the context of employability.
4.1.2. The role of higher education institutions
A focus on graduates' labour market success necessarily leads to an 'output and outcome awareness' in higher education (Teichler 2011, p. 29). However, according to some researchers, this process may have the tendency of defining higher education output rather narrowly, overlooking a range of other individual and social outputs of higher education to concentrate on graduates' employment prospects. In this context, higher education institutions are usually perceived as having the role of 'producing' employable graduates, and in doing so, responding to the needs of the labour market. As will be shown below, there are two main perspectives in outlining employability-related outcomes in higher education. Putting emphasis on the needs of the labour market focuses more on the demandside (what higher education institutions need to respond to), while an emphasis on employable graduates implies a more supply-side perspective (what higher education institutions need to achieve in terms of output). However, in most cases, it is difficult to disentangle these different perspectives. In terms of concrete implementation, employment-centred definitions of employability leave higher education institutions' role relatively open. Many different practices at universities can increase graduates' chances of finding employment soon after graduation: examples include embedding practical training and work placements in study programmes, involving employers in teaching and curriculum development, or providing career guidance to all students (see also Section 4.3.2). Definitions focusing on skills and competences, on the other hand, foresee a more concrete task for higher education institutions. Besides providing profession-specific teaching and skills, they have to develop the 'generic', 'transferable' or 'key skills' of students. How higher education institutions achieve this, however, remains open. Institutions (or faculties, departments) can decide to 'embed' such skills and competences within existing courses (through new teaching methods, for example); or else, they can include specific courses in the curriculum aiming to develop generic skills (Mason, Williams and Cranmer, 2009).
In the context of the widening participation agenda, it is also important to highlight the role of higher education institutions in enhancing the employability of non-traditional learners. According to Thomas and Jones (2007, p. 23), besides providing access to relevant work experience for students with 'nontraditional' backgrounds, higher education institutions have a particular responsibility to ensure that non-traditional learners can receive (targeted) advice and career guidance throughout the whole student lifecycle (i.e. from the very beginning of a student career). Such guidance can contribute to: 1) developing students' awareness about employability; 2) improving the confidence and self-esteem of students; and 3) developing the appropriate job search and application skills (Ibid.). In this way, guidance can help bring down the 'indirect' barriers non-traditional learners can face on the labour market: the fact that due to their background and earlier education opportunities, they might not evaluate labour market reality and their own competences well, and as a consequence, they often exclude themselves from getting the matching graduate jobs (11) (Thomas and Jones, 2007).
4.1.3. Defining employability in European countries
After providing an insight into potential definitions of employability and higher education institutions' role in this context, this section examines how European countries reflect on this concept in their steering documents for higher education.
Very few countries define employability directly or use the term explicitly. Even translating the originally English term into many other languages might be difficult. For this reason, this section looks at employability-related conceptualisations of higher education institutions' roles instead of examining
direct definitions.
As was mentioned above, two main perspectives on higher education institutions' roles can be distinguished: a more demand-side perspective focusing on the needs of the labour market, and a more supply-side perspective focusing on graduates' employability. Certainly, these perspectives are interlinked, but countries can choose to emphasise one over the other. In a number of countries, both approaches may exist, with different emphases given according to the missions of specific institutions – some more focused on specific professional education than others. Figure 4.1 illustrates the different perspectives and provides some country examples.
The more demand-side perspective focuses on higher education institutions' need and responsibility to respond to labour market demands. This responsibility is either stated generally, or specifically refers to the need to consult employers or employers' organisations when designing study programmes. In this case, such consultation ensures that labour market information and demand is embedded in higher education curricula. Countries only generally referring to the higher education sector's need to respond to labour market demand are Estonia, Spain, Hungary, Romania, the United Kingdom (some universities refer to the demand more specifically than others) and Liechtenstein. Countries specifically mentioning the need to involve or consult employers in their steering documents are Belgium (French Community), Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria (only universities of applied sciences), Poland, Slovenia, Montenegro, Norway and Turkey.
In the second case, higher education institutions are regarded as responsible for producing 'employable' graduates. Regarding graduates' employability, the two approaches discussed above (employment-centred and competences-centred) can also be distinguished when looking at the policy and steering documents for higher education in European countries.
Employment-centred approaches focus directly on graduates' employment prospects: higher education institutions are responsible for preparing graduates for employment. In these cases, higher education institutions are often evaluated based on graduate employment rates. This employmentcentred approach can be found in Belgium (Flemish Community), Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the United Kingdom (Scotland).
Competences-centred approaches, on the other hand, refer to the responsibility of higher education institutions to develop the skills and competences of graduates necessary to find a job. Worth noting, however, that employment-centred and competences-centred approaches are not contradictory and often exist in parallel. In these cases, the competence-centred approach specifies ways for higher education institutions to enhance graduate employability. The competence-centred approach can be found in the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Austria, Slovenia, Sweden, the United Kingdom (12), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey.
Irrespective of their emphasised perspective or approach, European countries usually discuss employability-related concerns from the perspective of higher education institutions or the student population as a whole. This aspect of the employability agenda is thus a relatively high profile policy issue.
The large majority of countries pay no particular attention to employability with regard to specific, underrepresented social groups. The exceptions are Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom. In Estonia, there are measures, for example, for extending the study period for students not proficient enough in the official language, and for people with disabilities or small/disabled children. In Greece, specific actions aiming to increase students' practical training include special arrangements for students with special needs, minorities, foreigners or students coming from other vulnerable social groups. In the United Kingdom (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), students with disabilities have specific access to careers education, information and guidance. In addition, in England, in 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) provided funding for a programme to support internships for disadvantaged students with the aim of widening access to the professions.
4.2. Responding to labour market needs
In their steering documents for higher education, several countries emphasise that higher education institutions should respond to the needs of the labour market. There are basically two sources of information about such labour market demand: labour market forecasts and employers or employers' organisations. This section discusses related practices in turn.
4.2.1. Labour market forecasting as an information source
Labour market forecasting is a common way to anticipate labour market needs in terms of skills demand and supply. Labour market forecasting is usually conducted by occupation and qualification levels. According to Cedefop (2008), such forecasting practices mainly serve two purposes: they have a 'policy function', in which they inform policy planning; and they have an 'information function', in which they aid guidance and information services on labour market trends. In the case of higher education institutions, this means that labour market forecasting can potentially influence programme planning and management such as designing study programmes, determining the number of state funded places, or allocating public funding. In addition, guidance and information services can guide (potential) students in orienting themselves towards more 'demanded' fields of study.
Certainly, todays' global 'knowledge economy' can change much faster than labour market forecasts can predict. Labour market forecasts are always based on past trends and cannot foresee bigger shifts in skills demand due to changes in economic reality (e.g. economic crises). Higher education graduates themselves can change the world of work and their innovative capacity is hard to take into account. In addition, while labour market forecasts tend to be national, in the EU, labour markets are becoming increasingly 'European'. Furthermore, as was discussed above, competences students gain during their higher education studies might be more important than the qualification they receive in the end (13). Therefore, relying on labour market forecasting has its own limitations.
 Besides a few exceptions (Bulgaria, Croatia, Portugal and Liechtenstein), labour market forecasting exists at national and/or regional levels in most European countries (14). As Figure 4.2 shows, labour market forecasts are conducted in an ad hoc manner in 10 countries, while there is a regular, established system in 13 countries. In Lithuania, a regular labour market forecasting system is currently under development.
However, using such labour market information systematically in higher education policy planning is relatively rare in European countries. Only 11 countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Finland, the United Kingdom, Montenegro and Norway) reported that their education authorities take account of labour market information in higher education planning and management.
Most commonly, information from labour market forecasting is used for determining the number of publicly funded study places in some or all the programmes. This is the case in seven education systems: Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Finland, the United Kingdom (Scotland), Montenegro and Norway. Alternatively, in Ireland, Poland and the United Kingdom (England), additional funding is allocated to areas with identified skills needs or to subjects considered to be 'strategically important'.
In Ireland, the Future Skills Needs reports inform the development of specific targeted funding and education provision to address emerging skills needs. Such initiatives include the 'Springboard' and the 'ICT skills conversion' programmes. Springboard provides free part-time higher education courses for unemployed people in areas where there are identified labour market skills shortages or employment opportunities. The ICT graduate skills conversion programmes are being provided for graduate jobseekers as part of the joint industry Government ICT Action Plan to build the domestic supply of high level ICT skills.
In the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) monitors the availability of programmes in socalled ‘strategically important and vulnerable subjects’ (SIVS), which include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), modern foreign languages, and quantitative social science. The Government is concerned to prioritise the subjects that require support to avoid undesirable reductions in the scale of provision. In 2012, HEFCE commissioned research into how other countries or states with similar higher education funding and student finance systems to England have identified and mitigated risks towards particular subjects or skills, and the policy approach adopted. HEFCE also provides additional funding for the teaching of high-cost STEM subjects, including a supplement for those which cost the most to deliver (chemistry, physics, chemical engineering and mineral, metallurgy and materials engineering). This has increased the overall level of funding for STEM teaching from 2012/13. In addition, HEFCE funded 'Routes into Languages', a £7.3 million programme that aimed to encourage the take-up of modern foreign language courses in England and which ran until July 2013.
4.2.2. The involvement of employers
Another way of including labour market information in higher education is through consulting or involving employers, employers' organisations and business representatives in the various steps of developing and evaluating higher education study programmes. Employers' participation is a more decentralised mechanism for ensuring that study programmes meet the needs of the labour market. This section considers the involvement of employers in three areas: curriculum development, teaching, and participation in decision-making or consultative bodies at national, regional, sectoral or institutional level. Employers' participation in external quality assurance will be discussed in Section 4.1.
The involvement of employers in at least one of these three areas is a requirement in 18 education systems. Out of these 18 education systems, employers' participation in decision-making or consultative bodies is required in 16 (see Figure 4.3c). These bodies can be national (e.g. in France, Latvia, Slovenia or Finland), regional (e.g. in Italy), sectoral (e.g. in Montenegro) or institutional (e.g. in Lithuania, Austria, Sweden or Norway). The involvement of employers in curriculum development is compulsory in seven education systems; their participation in teaching is a requirement in five. Yet, employers can be involved in higher education planning and programme development even if it is not required by central authorities. In practice, the involvement of employers in curriculum development and teaching, or their participation in decision-making or consultative bodies is much more widespread than what is prescribed by law. Again, as Figure 4.3c shows, involving employers is the most common in decision-making bodies at different levels: employers typically participate in such bodies in 22 education systems. Employers are involved in curriculum development in 19 education systems, and they frequently participate in teaching in 15 education systems.
Employers' participation can be facilitated by university-business cooperation projects. Through financial means, governments can provide incentives for both higher education institutions and business organisations to develop innovative projects together. In some countries (e.g. in Denmark and the United Kingdom), cooperation projects involving higher education institutions and enterprises can receive such financial support directly. Alternatively, other countries have established specific centres (e.g. Innovation and Liaison Offices in Greece and Centres of Technology Transfer in Latvia), the role of which is to facilitate cooperation between universities and businesses.
The Danish government has allocated DKK 40 million (EUR 5.3 million) for 2013 to support innovation projects at university colleges and business academies in cooperation with public and private enterprises. The projects are aimed at motivating widespread practice-based innovation and knowledge activities. The projects will focus on specific practical challenges in enterprises and involve teachers and students in strengthening the students’ innovative competencies and develop education programmes. In order to participate, enterprises will have to contribute with significant self-financing to the projects.
In Greece, the 'Education and Lifelong Learning' Operational Programme within the National Strategic Reference Framework (2007- 2013) finances Liaison Offices. Liaison Offices are meant to facilitate connections between the education sector and the labour market by developing channels of communication, networking and collaboration with businesses, employers' organizations and the wider society, as well as through the provision of comprehensive support and guidance to students and graduates for planning their further studies and personal career. The overall budget of the action amounts to EUR 10 million. The number of students benefiting from the program operating in 39 HEIs exceeds 150 000.
In addition, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Units aim to strengthen cooperation between academia and industrial partners, and to promote research in entrepreneurship-related fields. Their goal is to develop students' basic, as well as specific entrepreneurial skills and competences. The overall budget of the action amounts to EUR 9.97 million. 33 units have been created so far, while more than 37 000 students have benefited.
In Latvia, Centres of Technology Transfer have been established, partly financed from European Structural funds. Their aim is to facilitate collaboration between universities, industry and scientific institutions. There are nine such centres organised in Latvia. In the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) operates Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) worth £150 million per year to incentivise HEIs to increase their interactions with businesses, public and third sector organisations, community bodies and the wider public. The funding is designed to support the range of knowledge exchange activities that result in economic and social impact. Currently a high policy priority is to encourage activity that can help the country’s economic growth.
In some countries, there are also special degree programmes designed specifically to meet employers' demand, where curricula are developed with the involvement of employers.
In France, the professional bachelor degree, established in 1999, is issued by the university and has the prime objective of ensuring student employability. The qualification provides an opportunity for training designed and organised through close partnerships with employers. The university is required to present an application to establish a professional bachelor programme, and this is examined by a national expert commission that operates for a three year mandate and involves equal representation from experts appointed for their professional expertise and university representatives.
In the United Kingdom (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), foundation degrees, which have been available since 2001/02, are two-year higher education qualifications offering flexible and accessible ways of studying for skills that are in demand among employers. In addition, Higher Education Funding Council for England also has a workforce development programme, one of whose goals is the design and delivery of higher education courses in partnership with employers. Details of employer engagement projects focused on the development and delivery of higher education programmes with the cooperation of employers are available from the HEFCE website (15).
4.3. Enhancing graduate employability
A more supply-side perspective on employability in higher education concerns graduates' employment prospects and/or their competences enhancing their employability. This section considers two main ways of improving graduates' employability: inserting practical training and work placements into study programmes on the one hand, and career guidance provision on the other.
4.3.1. Practical training and work placements
Practical training and work placements are regarded as key elements in enhancing graduates' employability. Data from both European comparative studies and national reports show that students who participated in practical training before graduation are more likely to find jobs than their counterparts without relevant work experience (see e.g. Blackwell et al., 2001; Garrouste and Rodrigues, 2012; Mason, Williams and Cranmer, 2009; van der Velden and Allen, 2011). Thomas and Jones (2007) also emphasise the importance of work experience for non-traditional learners. Therefore, it is important to look at whether and how European countries provide incentives for higher education institutions to include structured work experiences or practical training in their study programmes.
In the European Union, Directive 2005/36/EC on the recognition of professional qualifications (16) regulates the embedding of practical training into certain, professionally oriented study programmes (e.g. for medical or pharmaceutical studies). In the majority of countries, the inclusion of practical training is required for such degrees.
For other study programmes, higher education institutions are mostly free to decide whether they include such structured work experiences and whether they are optional or compulsory. However, some countries do limit this freedom of higher education institutions. In some cases, such limitation can relate to certain types of institutions. For example, in Denmark, practical training is required at Academies of Professional Higher Education and University Colleges, but not at universities. In other countries, practical training is required for certain degree types (e.g. for the licence professionnelle in France). In Lithuania, all 1st cycle students are required to undergo practical training. In Montenegro, in the accreditation process of a new study programme, higher education institutions are obliged to enclose pre-agreements on business cooperation regarding students' practical training.
The proportion of students participating in practical training or work placements is not available in the large majority of countries. Among the countries with available data, participation is among the highest (100 %) in Finland, where all first-cycle polytechnic courses include at least three months long work placement period, and practical training is compulsory for some university degrees. Participation is also quite high in Lithuania (100 % of 1st cycle students participate), Latvia (86 % of 1st cycle and 14 % of 2nd cycle students gain work experience through practical training) and Italy (nearly 60 % of 1st cycle students and 56 % of 2nd cycle students participate).
However, besides such – mostly short – structured work placements, also other arrangements exist with the aim of ensuring that students gain professional experience during their studies. For example, in France, students can participate in a dual system (alternance) which combines theoretical studies in higher education institutions with professional experience gained at work. In this case, students have work contracts throughout their studies. Currently, 7 % of higher education students and 5 % of university students study in such an arrangement.
It is not only through regulations that governments can encourage work experience to become an integral part of an increasing number of higher education programmes. Many countries provide financial incentives to higher education institutions and employers alike to increase the number of available traineeships. These initiatives are open to all students, and in most cases, this means that the costs of practical training are – at least partly – covered by public sources (e.g. in Belgium (French Community), Bulgaria, Greece, France, Croatia, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal, Finland and the United Kingdom). Targeted initiatives focusing on disadvantaged students exist only in the United Kingdom (England).
In Bulgaria, the 'Student placements' project run within the Human Recourses Development Operational Program aims to ensure practical training in real working environment and is open for both full-time and part-time students. Funding is provided for the remuneration of students, academic mentors from universities and mentors from the employer.
In Greece, within the Operational Programme on 'Education and Lifelong Learning' of the National Strategic Reference Framework (2007-2013), a framework of incentives is developed, both to increase the number of participating students, and to attract more businesses to host internships. The overall budget of the action amounts to EUR 82.5 million. In addition, Innovation and Liaison offices operating in HEIs also organise the practical training of students.
In Croatia, the Employment Promotion Act (2012) provides opportunity for employers to contract, up to a total of 12 months, higher education graduates with no prior work experience using the so called 'agreement on professional training for work without employment' scheme. During this period, employers are exempt from paying any taxes and other contributions (health insurance, etc.) for these employees and such trainees receive from the state the monthly fee of about EUR 200. The aim of this is to enable higher education graduates without prior work experience to obtain some initial work experience and hence to make them more attractive to the labour market.
In Lithuania, the implementation of practical training is incentivized via the National Study Programme, through which support is provided for the practical training of students of both study cycles and all areas of study in private and public enterprises, institutions and organisations. The goal is to develop the entrepreneurial skills of students as well as to create partnerships between HEIs and various social partners. Eligible applicants for this support are associations of employers in partnership with HEIs, institutions and organisations. In addition, scientific practices of academically-oriented students are supported via the Researcher’s Career Programme. The measure finances placements and practical training of students of both cycles and all areas of study in leading scientific groups and institutions of the country.
In Poland, a new programme was launched in 2013 by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and National Research and Development Centre (a governmental agency), aimed at supporting higher education institutions in providing internships for students. The funds are granted through a competitive procedure between institutions that have created the best training programmes with industry. The pilot edition of the new programme will fund at least three months training at companies for approximately 10 000 students. The budget for the programme is PLN 50 million (ca. EUR 12 million).
In the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has run a number of funding programmes designed to help businesses find the skills they need and also help graduates find the skills that lead to employment, e.g. internship schemes for undergraduates and graduates. In one of such programmes, HEFCE provided £1 million to 30 HEIs in 2010 to support undergraduate internships for disadvantaged students to work in professional organisations, to widen access to the professions. 850 internships were completed under this initiative.
Since 2010, the Adopt-an-Intern programme is run by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy to match graduates with businesses, offering paid, meaningful and career-enhancing internships in Scotland.
4.3.2. Career guidance
Providing labour market information, career guidance or mentoring students is another way of enhancing the employability of graduates. As mentioned above, career guidance is regarded as particularly important for non-traditional learners (Thomas and Jones, 2007), especially if it is provided throughout the whole student lifecycle.
As Figure 4.4 shows, career guidance is available throughout the whole student lifecycle in higher education institutions in almost all countries. The exceptions are the German-speaking Community of Belgium, where career guidance is only available in the last year before graduation; the Czech Republic, Latvia and Portugal, where higher education institutions are fully autonomous in their decision to establish career guidance services; Croatia, where only external services are available; Malta, where only some students have access to internal career guidance services, but all of them may access external services.
Guidance services tend to be open to all students, and respond to individual student demands. The only countries reporting targeted guidance are Greece and the United Kingdom (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). In Greece, Liaison Offices responsible for career guidance and counselling provide specific services to students and graduates coming from vulnerable social groups in order to develop their professional qualifications and to support their professional integration. In the United Kingdom (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), students with disabilities are particularly supported to ensure that they have access to the same provision as other students.
Guidance services in higher education institutions are less widespread for graduates/alumni. As Figure 4.5 depicts, alumni career services are available to all students in higher education institutions in 18 education systems, and some graduates can access such services in eight. In France, besides general alumni guidance services, there are also specific graduate placement services in the grandes écoles.
Graduate career guidance is externalised completely in the German-speaking Community of Belgium, Estonia, Croatia, Lithuania, Malta and Sweden. No such guidance services are available in Ireland, Romania, and Norway.
4.4. Evaluating employability
Higher education institutions' employability performance is often subject to external evaluation. Evaluation processes on the quality of higher education provision can include criteria on employability. Most prominently, employability criteria can form part of external quality assurance processes. In addition, several countries have established other procedures of evaluating how well higher education institutions perform in 'producing' employable graduates. This section provides an overview about such evaluation processes.
4.4.1. Quality assurance
Quality assurance is the main mechanism through which education authorities can encourage higher education institutions to enhance the employability of their graduates. Indeed, as Figure 4.6 shows, in the large majority of countries, higher education institutions are obliged to submit employability-related information to quality assurance agencies before programme accreditation or for the continuing evaluation of institutions and/or programmes. Employability-related information is considered optionally during the evaluation process in nine education systems. This may also include systems such as in Hungary, where accreditation procedures consider employability, but there is no minimum requirements connected to the criteria. Such criteria do not form part of quality assurance procedures in six countries.
Employability-related quality standards can focus on a variety of issues. Higher education institutions can be required to show that their programmes are relevant for the labour market answering an existing demand (e.g. in Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria (in case of accreditation, curricula for universities of applied sciences, not obligatory for universities) and Slovenia). In other cases, higher education institutions have to provide proof that they involve employers or include employers' perspectives in programme development (e.g. in Belgium (French Community), Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Austria, Poland, Finland, Switzerland and Norway). In several countries, higher education institutions have to regularly submit data on the employment of their graduates or have to prove that they have a monitoring or tracking system in place (e.g. in Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy, Latvia and Lithuania). In Italy, the quality assurance agency verifies the presence of student services that can provide support for the labour market transition of graduates.
Another way of ensuring that employability criteria – the labour market relevance of programmes or the involvement of employers in programme development – are considered during the evaluation process is through the participation of employers in external quality assurance procedures. Employers participate in external quality assurance processes in around half of the education systems (see Figure 4.7). In almost all countries where employers participate, they are required to do so. The exceptions are the German-speaking Community of Belgium and Iceland, where employers are involved in external quality assurance without any formal requirements.
4.4.2. Other evaluation processes and financial schemes
Besides formal quality assurance procedures, several countries have established other processes of evaluating study programmes based on employability criteria. The basis of such evaluation is most often student and graduate surveys, where students and/or graduates can evaluate their study programme as well as can provide details on their transition to the labour market. Examples of graduate surveys and graduate tracking systems are discussed in detail in Section 4.3. Besides students and graduates, another source of information can be employers. Employers' surveys can reveal how satisfied employers are with the level of competences of their employees recruited after their studies and how well those competences match job requirements. Employers’ surveys have been conducted in many European countries (17). Ireland, for example, organised the first National Employers’ Survey in 2012, and aims to establish a regular system for evaluating higher education institutions.
Finally, another information source can be higher education institutions themselves. Besides organising their own graduate surveys or tracking systems, they can also publish their plans on how they intend to improve the employability of their graduates. For example, in the United Kingdom, higher education institutions funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) have been requested to write employability statements, short summaries of what they offered to their students to support their employability and their transition into employment and beyond. One prominent goal of setting up such evaluation processes is to make employability-related information on higher education study programmes public. This can inform current and future students on their potential career prospects. For example, Bulgaria established a Universities Ranking System (18), where graduates’ employment and income form part of the composite indicator on ‘career and relevance to labour market’. Or else, in the United Kingdom, the Unistats (19) website compares higher education course data, enabling prospective students to compare information on a course by course basis (see also Section 4.3). Information includes previous students’ satisfaction, professional body accreditation, graduate employment destinations and salary, as well as higher education institutions’ employability statements. In addition, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publishes performance indicators for higher education institutions, one of which is the employment rate of graduates.
Several countries (e.g. the Czech Republic, Estonia (from 2016 onwards), Spain, Italy, Austria, Poland and Finland) have also developed (or are in the process of developing) systems of performance-based or purpose-specific funding, where employability-related information is not only made public, but relevant criteria can also influence the funding of higher education institutions.
In the Czech Republic, the budget that HEIs receive directly from the state is composed of many items. About 80 % of the overall budget from the state is the so-called normative part. About 75 % of the normative part is allocated by a funding formula based on the number of students enrolled; and about 25 % of the normative part is allocated by the so-called qualitative indicators, one of them being the level of employment of graduates.
In Spain, the labour insertion of graduates is one element to be taken into account in the funding of universities. Indicators to measure labour insertion include: the graduate employment rate one year after graduation; the graduate employment rate five years after graduation; and the percentage of graduates who five years after graduation achieve a higher level of income than the population with secondary studies. Nevertheless, how this information affects the universities' funding depends on the Autonomous Communities.
In Italy, internships during the study programme and the proportion of employed graduates one year after graduation on the total number of graduates of the same year are an indicator used when assigning financial resources to higher education institutions. In Austria, public universities are funded by global budgets consisting of the basic budget and the higher education area structural funds. The basic budget is to be negotiated under performance agreements (Leistungsvereinbarungen) concluded between the individual university and the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy every three years. In such performance agreements, universities have to point out their plans, e.g. for the improvement of employability. Universities are then evaluated based on these agreements.
In Finland, a part of polytechnics' state funding is based on their employability performance, starting in 2014. For example, completed degrees are part of performance-based funding. Also indicators on R&D and influence on regional development and cooperation with the working life are used in calculation of performance-based funding.
4.4.3. Career tracking of graduates
Graduate surveys that rely on the self-assessment of graduates are considered to be the most accurate tools for evaluating the employability of higher education graduates (van der Velden & van Smoorenburg, 1997). Career tracking surveys (or in other words, tracer studies) do not only provide the means to measure the percentage of graduates finding employment after graduation, but they are also able to describe the quality of jobs, the length of the job search period, graduates' job satisfaction, and the match between graduates' skills and job requirements (see Teichler, 2011). Furthermore, based on graduate surveys, it is possible to conduct analyses on the relative impact of graduates' individual characteristics and the higher education programme they attended (Ibid.). This way, tracer studies are useful tools for a multi-dimensional evaluation of employability in higher education. Few comparative graduate surveys (20) exist at European level. Their advantage is the comparability of information across countries. However, these surveys took place only in a limited number of countries and only once, which does not allow for comparisons across time. In addition, it is more difficult for such information to be channelled back to higher education institutions. Therefore, graduate surveys are also needed to be conducted regularly at national level in order to allow for an efficient flow of information between graduates, higher education institutions/programmes and education authorities.
With the exception of Croatia and Montenegro, graduate surveys exist in every education system participating in this report, at least at the level of (some) higher education institutions. However, in Montenegro, a new law foresees an obligation for higher education institutions to conduct such surveys regularly. As Figure 4.8 shows, regular graduate surveys at national/regional level exist in 14 education systems, while ad hoc national/regional surveys take place in six. In Belgium, at the level of the French Community, a regular system for the tracking of graduates is currently being developed. Some examples of graduate tracking systems (21) are summarised in Figure 4.9.
However, only in a few education systems do education authorities make a systematic use of the information collected on the basis of graduate surveys. Most often, graduate surveys are used in quality assurance or other evaluation processes of higher education study programmes (e.g. in Estonia, Spain, France, Italy, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, Iceland and Norway). In Poland, such a system is starting. In addition, information and guidance services can use information to guide prospective and current higher education students.
4.5. Experience from site visits
Enhancing employability at universities
All the eight universities that were visited reported an increase in attention to issues of employability in recent years. However, there were notable differences related to study fields, with technically-oriented faculties showing a tendency to develop more systematic approaches to issues of employability than arts and humanities faculties. Nevertheless, all universities reported a general trend towards more systematic attention to facilitating the transition of graduates to the labour market, with some notable good practice examples found in places where they might not be anticipated.
The approach to issues of employability was often tied to the institutions 'position' in the university world. For example, at the highly ranked technical University of Aachen, while the employment of graduates is considered a matter of great importance, there is a perception that all graduates will have acquired the knowledge and skills that equip them for the labour market, and that there is therefore no need to pay more specific attention to this issue. In some universities, such as the Tallinn Technical University, employability has been taken up and addressed in institutional policy and practice following developments in national policy. At the University of Jyväskylä, employability issues are embedded in an integrated policy approach which aims to create more links to regional companies, and also encourages students to undertake voluntary projects to enhance skills needed in working life.
However, perhaps the most striking example of innovative thinking towards employability was found at the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB). Here change had clearly been accelerated by the extremely difficult economic, political and social environment, with Greece experiencing a reality described by the University Rector not merely as economic crisis but rather as structural economic collapse. Athens University of Economics and Business is a specialised university and the oldest of its kind in Greece (established in 1920) providing education in all three cycles in the fields of Economics, Business Administration, Informatics, Statistics, Marketing, Accounting and Finance. While the university is highly ranked with an excellent reputation both in the country and internationally, the focus of discussion was on initiatives related to supporting the employability of students in a reality where the labour market nationally has practically ceased to exist. Students have therefore been forced to change their labour market expectations radically. With little hope of public sector employment, or indeed of gaining typical graduate employment in the private sector, students have become increasingly interested in creating new forms of employment for themselves, and supporting each other in developing the skills that they would need. An extremely significant shift had consequently occurred at the university with support being channelled to a dynamic blend of employability and entrepreneurship. Very interesting interlinked services have been developed on careers innovation/entrepreneurship and internships.
All of these services have been developed using European structural funds by young, dynamic and highly motivated staff. Vitally, however, all services have also been guided by experienced academic staff, thus ensuring a link with the teaching and research work at the university. Staff involved clearly have a very student-centred approach. The three services were also clearly well integrated with one another and have had a great impact.
Through the career services not only is information and training provided to students throughout their studies, but the university has also been working as an agency for matching specific candidates with companies. It was reported that many students found their first employment in the company where they had had an internship. The unit also undertakes research, with a regular survey on the employment status of graduates. The office is also very active in using social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, to provide information and follow the progression of graduates.
In recent years, a new focus has been on promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. The university provides courses, but also seminars on different aspects of starting new businesses, with plans in the pipe-line for the establishment of a Centre for entrepreneurship. The students we met had been extraordinarily active in internships, developing their own start-ups, contributing to research projects, supporting fellow students in their endeavours, and even in advising their peers from other countries. The provision of internships was very actively supported by a specific service for the whole university, even if the internship was only mandatory in one department – and the students would receive a nominal remuneration from the government for their work. The students were prepared through seminars on how to apply, how to behave during an interview and their application was put in a database where once the application/CV had been approved was visible to potential companies who are looking for an intern. The internship lasts two-three months and there are more than 1 500 companies in the database following a recent effort to include SMEs. The administrators explained that many students found their first job through their internship, and a particular focus has also been placed on the importance of mobility. The Erasmus programme in particular is being used to offer internships in other European countries.
Another example of changes to more emphasis on employability issues can be found at the University of Jyväskylä, where it is a common theme flowing throughout the university course provision, and students were also reported to find it increasingly important to prepare what they become after finishing their studies. Therefore, there are attempts to make career guidance available throughout the studies and to include alumni both as advisors for curricula development, but also as mentors for students.
Small modules that support third mission engagement have been introduced and 1-2 ECTS are given for doing projects that have external engagement – one such project was companies that have a problem that they would like to have solved by students. An e-portfolio has been introduced which helps the student identify not their academic skills, but also other skills that are needed in the labour market. Internships are in one form or another becoming increasingly popular and efforts are made to collect information on these and make them available to students. Career service helps students in their search for employment: help to define their skills and their attitude – help with writing CVs, job applying skills. One specific tool is the above-mentioned eportfolio, another is to encourage a structured path for obtaining general skills in a variety of courses.
The portfolio is developed with both academic and extra-curricular activities, such as voluntary work which can be included in the portfolio. Their use is voluntary, so they are not used yet by so many students. Some courses at the university are labour-market oriented, or focus on obtaining skills through establishing summer school or other practical engagement in society. They are called expertise courses that are focused on career and generic skills development. There is a new course on entrepreneurship as it is expected that more graduates will become self-employed.
Conclusions
All European countries participating in this report engage in one form or another in improving the employability of higher education graduates. However, approaches differ, as does the level of engagement. As Section 1 showed, there are differences between countries in focusing on labour market demand or supply, though these approaches are often inseparable. In addition, some countries take an employment-centred approach measuring employability through graduate employment rates, others emphasise equipping students with competences relevant for the labour market, and several countries combine the two perspectives.
In addition, differences between countries exist regarding the measures through which they are encouraging higher education institutions to improve their employability performance. The most common way to promote the employability agenda is through quality assurance: 23 education systems require higher education institutions to submit employability-related information in quality assurance procedures. In addition, several countries have established alternative evaluation procedures to provide incentives for higher education institutions to improve their employability performance. One prominent mechanism through which authorities expect better results is making employability-related information public for both current and prospective students. Another, more direct mechanism is to link public funding levels with employability performance. In this latter case, partial funding of higher education institutions depends on whether they focus on enhancing their graduates' employability.
When looking at the detailed measures aiming to improve graduates' employability, similar differences between policy approaches can be detected. One prominent approach is a regulatory one: education authorities simply make it compulsory for higher education institutions to implement certain practices. For example, in 21 education systems, institutions are required to involve employers in at least one of the following areas: curriculum development, teaching, participation in decision-making bodies and external quality assurance. Or else, several countries oblige higher education institutions to include practical training in (some) higher education study programmes.
Another approach many education authorities take is providing financial incentives for higher education institutions to establish certain institutional practices. For example, authorities can fund university-business cooperation projects in order to increase the involvement of employers in higher education study programmes. Or else, they can provide funding for students' practical training in order to improve their work-related skills.
However, no matter which approach education systems take, they mostly target students or graduates as a whole, without concentrating on specific – disadvantaged – groups of students. This shows that the widening participation agenda still needs to be extended to cover employability policies as well. Evaluating the impact of existing measures and approaches is not straightforward. One way to do so is through establishing regular graduate surveys at both national and European levels. National level graduate surveys can provide better feedback for individual higher education institutions, while graduate surveys conducted on a European scale can provide a comparative insight into the effectiveness of different policy approaches.
Issues of employability were taken into account in all eight institutions that were visited, with different approaches taken, depending on the country and type of institution in question. At Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece, the changing economic environment has forced the university to think of radical ways to enhance the career prospects of students. This has resulted in a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship, as creating employment is both a major priority of the economy and the best prospect for employment of future graduates. Télécharger la Version complète du rapport "Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe" : en.