Employer links crucial to higher education success

Colleges
and universities need better links with employers to ensure that vocational
higher education (HE) courses meet their skills needs.

A
new report from the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) – Vocational
higher education – does it meet employers’ needs? – reveals that students
believe employers are confused about vocational qualifications.

More
than half a million students are studying vocational HE courses in English
colleges and universities. Many of these are sub-degree courses – vocational
undergraduate studies that do not lead to an honours degree qualification.

The
research findings were based on face-to-face interviews with 65 students in 11
focus groups, telephone interviews careers and advisory staff and interviews
with 28, mostly large, employers and employer representative bodies. Five
sectors were covered – construction; engineering; computing/IT; hospitality;
and general business (covering FMCG, financial services, retail, manufacturing,
media and the public sector) – along with one armed services organisation and
six small and medium-sized enterprises (in electronics and media).

Main
findings – students 


Students were concerned about the fragmented nature and lack of visibility of
vocational HE qualifications in the jobs market, stressing the problems in
communicating a clear identity for these qualifications.


Those who were employed reported instances of condescension among
degree-holding employees in their workplace, and those on full-time programmes
believed that employers preferred degrees – although this was not necessarily
reflected in the research with employers.


Students’ motivation for studying was les less to do with what employers
thought, but rather driven by the belief that more qualifications are the key
to better jobs and recognition. But many – particularly those following courses
which were clearly part of a ‘degree track’ – appeared to have no professional
strategy and little idea of whether the course would be helpful in finding a
job.

Main
findings – employers


Employers varied in the value they placed on different higher-level
qualifications. Some (notably those in construction and engineering) saw
benefits in recruiting those with HNDs and HNCs as they were more likely to
have developed technical and practical skills. But others (notably the larger
employers in the business sector) preferred to recruit graduates, particularly
where greater breadth or generic behavioural and analytical skills were needed.


There was some evidence of a trend among larger employers (particularly in
general business) away from asking for specific HE qualifications towards
methods of selection that identify candidates with personal qualities such as
high motivation as well as academic achievements. Many have ceased to operate
corporate graduate recruitment programmes and instead are trying to identify
suitable recruits in other ways.


Many employers preferred their own in-house training schemes to external
qualifications offered by colleges, universities and other learning providers,
stressing the need to demonstrate a strong business case for using external
education and training. Those who did take that option, however, did not
generally distinguish between different types of providers, tending to make
choices on the basis of cost and how the courses or programmes meet specific
needs.


The role of professional bodies in certain sectors was seen as crucial to
boosting and maintaining the credibility of vocational HE. The research
revealed a renewed emphasis on chartered technician status (related to
sub-degree programmes) which might affect employers’ recruitment and training
practices.

www.lsda.org.uk/pubs

By Quentin Reade

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