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Learn Then Earn - Unis Must Prepare Work-Ready Graduates

02/05/2013 10:13 BST | Updated 01/07/2013 10:12 BST

It's no secret that most students choose to study at university to enhance their career prospects and to improve their chances of landing a rewarding career. Of course, some are drawn to university by the student lifestyle and the independence of three years living away from mum and dad. Yes, the life experiences gained at university are of immense value to each and every student. But for most students, certainly in these trying times, university is first and foremost about getting a respectable degree.

For years now an undergraduate degree has been viewed as a golden ticket to employment and universities as the gateway to a land of job opportunities. Unfortunately for today's student, a degree alone is not the golden ticket it was once perceived to be.

Following the dramatic increase in higher education provision in the UK and some fundamental shifts in the graduate recruitment market, a degree is no longer enough to guarantee graduates a satisfying career. Being academically qualified is clearly important, but being academically qualified and work-ready is increasingly proving to be the magic formula for success.

Employers today are looking for 'work-ready' graduates with clear evidence of job specific and generic workplace skills in addition to high level graduate attributes. With the job market arguably at its most competitive level in over a decade, university students are increasingly looking for different avenues to increase their attractiveness to prospective employers. For today's student, employability skills are an essential supplement to academic qualifications.

The Higher Education Academy defines employability as 'sets of achievements, skills, understandings and personal attributes that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy' (Higher Education Academy 2012).

The precise nature and academic level of the skills required for successful employment remains a contentious issue, although a consensus appears to exist that those entering the workforce for the first time don't currently have the requisite balance of generic employability skills and understanding demanded by employers.

Employability skills are now generally recognised as an essential precondition for the effective development and use of other, more specialist or technical skills required for particular jobs and are a key underpin to one's effectiveness at work.

In short, employers today are looking for graduates with experience and skills beyond the classroom. They want graduates with initiative, graduates with the skills to handle unforeseen circumstances, graduates who are used to leaving their comfort zones and tasting new experiences. Ultimately, employers today want graduates they can trust to hit the ground running.

In recognition of this, universities are increasingly embedding employability as a key feature of their academic provision and it is now almost expected that students are given the opportunity to engage in activities both inside and outside of the curriculum that allow them to further develop a wide range of employability skills.

Universities recognise that today's graduates need multiple strings to their bows and students are now being offered the opportunity to take part in a range of activities on university campuses and in the local community to enable them to further develop key transferable skills.

The University of Wales Trinity Saint David, for example, is committed to supporting students with their employability plan and we urge them to pursue an active programme of personal development in skills that will help them succeed in life after university.

I believe, in my role as Dean of Arts and Social Studies, that universities have a responsibility to maximise our graduates' career prospects and this means providing opportunities for students to boost their employability skills, through their programmes of study, volunteering, internships and work placements, part-time and vacation work and involvement in running clubs and societies.

It is widely acknowledged that a positive attitude is the key foundation of employability. That type of attitude involves a readiness to take part, openness to new activities and ideas, and a desire to achieve results. It underpins and links together the other key capabilities such as self management, team working, business and customer awareness, problem solving, communication and application of numeracy and information technology.

In my opinion, universities are duty bound to prepare graduates that are academically, emotionally and socially prepared for the wider world. Employability related experiences prepare students to become confident, capable and employable graduates on the one hand and, most importantly, active, caring, thoughtful and responsible citizens on the other. What better impact could a university hope to have on a young person's life than that?

*High Fliers research: The Graduate Market in 2013