Original version of this article published by University World News 20 June 2014, issue 325, available at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20140617130233163
By Anne Corbett
The hang-ups about employability that affect the university sector are refreshingly lacking in professional higher education. Equipping its students for jobs has been the raison d’être for the professional higher education sector represented by EURASHE, the European Association of Institutions in Higher Education.
This professional equivalent of the European University Association, which represents the national associations of university presidents, has just been holding its annual conference on the theme “Qualifications for the Labour Market” in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
The pressures of higher education expansion and internationalisation are requiring some rethinking on the part of professional higher education, independent of the effects of the 2008 crisis.
The recent European Commission report on access and employability, part of its drive for the modernisation of higher education, showed up many countries as failing to set targets and monitor progress in these areas.
But I came away from this conference thinking that the more important point was to share knowledge as to where professional higher education is heading and how to prepare.
EURASHE members in reading the future are looking forward to significantly greater demand from industry for those whose qualifications combine academic higher education and practical or technological skills.
In a knowledge economy, an ability to function at higher education levels is essential and one of the capabilities demanded is an understanding of the practical application of research. This in turn is encouraging the professional sector to engage more in research but also to better understand the directions that applied research is taking.
The new pattern
Lifelong learning is becoming part of the new pattern. The professional sector understands better than the academic sector how important it is to be employable over a lifetime.
As Jim Allen from Maastricht University and one of the researchers on the OECD’s influential PIAAC – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies – study of adult skills put it, the sector needs to be ‘alert’ to the changing trends of even basic skills.
A knowledge society interprets literacy as the ability to evaluate complex material and make complex inferences as opposed to merely reading.
Two other points from the conference possibly say more about higher education employability than the refrain taken up by the European Students’ Union that ‘higher education is about more than jobs’.
One is the scope for higher education institutions to innovate to make their students more employable.
There was a striking example at the conference from Coventry University – a rare UK representative in Yerevan. The university is potentially well placed in the motor and high tech heartland to initiate the work placements that not only lead to the likelihood of employment but also keep employers linked into higher education and research.
The novelty, as presented by the project’s Mike Grey, is that the university has itself invested heavily in employability services and events. It makes them free to employers and offers students the additional option of developing placement (and the possibility of extra credits) over and above their university courses. It has provided some spectacular results for all parties.
The other insight was an awareness of how much the employability debate resonates in countries outside the old social democracies of Western Europe.
The case of Armenia is exemplary. Until 1991, when the Soviet economy collapsed, bringing ruin to its manufacturing-based economy, students were guaranteed a job. In the old economy, a model graduate student was one whose knowledge ranked second to his or her attitude.
In today’s Armenia’s 50% of those in the 20- to 24-year age range are unemployed. This explains at least in part why Armenia’s extensive professional higher education sector hitched itself to EURASHE’s train a decade or so ago. And one thing has led to another.
With so much turning on how the country’s large range of technological universities can steer higher education towards the new economy, Armenia has engaged still more with European higher education. It is currently running the Bologna secretariat and will be hosting Bologna ministers next year.
* Dr Anne Corbett is an Associate of the London School of Economics.