When I graduated in 2010, I assumed – in retrospect, naively – that my grades, extra curricular activities and the fact that I had worked through university would qualify me for full time graduate employment. How wrong I was…

You see, if you want to secure a graduate position, having a degree is only half of the battle. In fact, according to a recent study, maybe even less so. The findings state:

Many recruiters commented that irrespective of the academic results that a graduate had achieved, it would be very hard for an applicant to demonstrate the skills and competencies that they were looking for if they’d not had any prior work experience.”

Martin Birchall, MD of High Fliers, the recruitment firm that conducted the research, said that:

Today’s report includes the stark warning that in this highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who’ve not had any work experience during their time at university have little or no chance of landing a well-paid job with a leading employer, irrespective of the university they’ve attended or the academic results they achieve.”

And, as many would argue, why should they? Why should a degree, on its own, serve as an entitlement to a good job? University isn’t the most straining of experiences and – in many instances – relatively little of what is learned can be applied to the workplace.

In my experience, academia, although being intellectually enriching, was out of touch with the world of business: unaware of its requirements and the employment needs of most graduates. As a result, students often come out with a wealth of highly specialised knowledge in a particular field, but little practical understanding of the workplace.

With this in mind, should a potential student’s decision not to go to university – to spend that time acquiring professionally relevant experience and saving a considerable amount of money in the process – really be detrimental to their short or long term career prospects? Is this not a more resourceful and measured approach to beginning your career, as opposed to going through the motions of higher education just because all of your peers are or UCAS suggests that you do so – yeah, funny that…

There are also a number of inconsistencies surrounding the employability of graduates with different degrees. Degrees in the classically academic subjects; English Literature, History, Philosophy etc., subjects that are highly valued at school and at college, often fail to impress employers due to a lack of vocational content. Despite this, admission requirements for these courses are steep and the competition is fierce. It seems that applicants, their parents, college teachers, advisors and lecturers are still labouring under the illusion that these courses carry as much if not more clout than the more vocational, if less illustrious subjects.

The country’s largest graduate employers – “PricewaterhouseCoopers (1,200 vacancies), Deloitte (1,000), KPMG (900) and Ernst & Young (740)” – don’t want these qualifications, they want courses with clear vocational merit: business, accountancy, economics and so on. The proliferation of new areas of study; Film Studies, Cultural Studies, Dance, Music Technology etc., further contributes to the increasingly unbalanced issue of graduate employability.

The findings of the study mentioned earlier echo Richard Branson’s comments made at a seminar some years ago in China. Branston criticised the British education system, saying that graduates were “overeducated” and underprepared for the world of work.

Unfortunately, it is in the nature of established institutions like universities – and in particular, the ‘classically academic’ faculties I mentioned earlier – to react fairly poorly to this sort of criticism. I find it inconceivable to think that any on on e of my lecturers would have scrubbed out a two hour seminar slot on Joyce’s Ulysses to be replaced by a session on interview technique, or how best to accept feedback in the workplace. But, if these are the things that graduates need to know, then this is what students should be being taught. It seems silly to expect students to pay premium rates for a service that is outdated and is, increasingly and in many key areas, failing to serve its purpose.

The graduate skill set is out of kilter with employer’s demands and internships are an effective way of aligning the two. Unfortunately, the experience is often costly, with graduates who are already heavily indebted scraping by on marginal or non existent wages. The fact that employers are increasingly asking only for graduates with internships, in an effort to redress the balance of professionally relevant and academic learning, shows that universities are failing to move with the times. The increasing number of people entering the graduate job market also adds impetus to the notion that the value of a degree shouldn’t be measured solely on where it was received, but where the graduates from that particular university tend to end up.

I think internships are valuable experiences for graduates and I can see the benefits for organisations that seek both to intern and only employ individuals that have interned before. Equally, the fact that relevant work experience is increasingly superseding the importance of a degree – from any university – shows that universities are failing to meet the needs of graduate employers. When I applied for university, I was told that doing so would considerably improve my prospects. Fortunately, upon my graduation I happened to land on my feet, but the same cannot be said for a great many of my peers.

Academic institutions are service providers like any other. If an organisation becomes inflexible and is consistently failing to meet the demands of the market, it goes under. The increasing number of people attending university has supported the higher education system so far, but it will not do so indefinitely. If universities are to remain valuable public institutions, the balance of vocational and professional learning that students receive needs to be addressed.