Universities step up to demands for leadership training

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It is a perennial refrain: employers say university graduates are not ready for employment. Whether they are criticising literacy, numeracy or problem-solving skills, each generation’s university students are usually lacking.

In the UK, a new report from the Chartered Management Institute, “21st century Leaders”, finds employers demanding more business-savvy graduates. The report updates a 2014 study that identified the need for more “work-ready” graduates. It was compiled from a survey of 1,045 managers across small and medium-sized businesses and large organisations.

Seventy per cent of employers surveyed believed management, enterprise and leadership modules should be integrated into all academic degree subjects to boost employability, and 66 per cent of employers wanted graduates to achieve professional qualifications as well as their undergraduate degrees.

Employers say universities are taking note. The report findings chime with those of the Institute of Student Employers, says Stephen Isherwood, ISE’s chief executive. “All the evidence shows that formal placements and internships make the world of difference to student employability but the problem is that many students just want to get in, get their undergraduate degree done and get out again.”

He says that the important bit is to provide and promote management and leadership initiatives, and while universities are not doing enough “they are trying to do more”.

Employers should be clear on what they mean by leadership, says Rob Fryer, director of the University of Leicester Careers Development Service. The university has developed its own Transferable Skills Framework — a wish list of 12 skills identified by employers such as Teach First, the Civil Service, Barclays and Deloitte.

Students check off skills acquired during their course and outside university to ensure they are on track. “We are looking for students to take ownership and responsibility,” says Mr Fryer.

The Leicester award is offered to every student in their first semester, and includes the option of a two-day residential course. It helps to “develop a talent pipeline into our graduate programme”, says Kate Croucher, university partnership manager at FDM Group, a graduate employer. “Students work on real-life business projects and are able to develop their career readiness.”

For Hilary Wu, a final-year chemistry student, Leicester’s programme has helped her to secure a work placement at Pfizer. “The personalised, continual support I’ve had has had an enormous role in preparing me for life beyond university,” she says.

Meanwhile, the University of York wants all its graduates to gain leadership skills.

“The skills associated with leadership are important regardless of what career they go into,” says Tom Banham, York’s director of employability and careers.

The university’s Student Employability Strategy, launched in 2017, was set up with recruitment psychologists CAPP and with input from employers including Aviva, the insurer, PwC, the professional services firm, and law firm Clifford Chance. Freshers on any degree course can enrol on York Futures, a voluntary programme that combines numerical reasoning, situational judgment tests and development days. Keen second-years can enrol on the York Leaders programme, a three-day course.

Vanessa Sefa, a second-year English and education student, has just completed the course. She wants to be a headteacher, and the course gives her an opportunity to learn about working with other people. “I keep telling my friends to sign up for it. Why wouldn’t you want to do it?” she says.

Mr Banham adds that a degree is no longer reading on your own and sitting an exam. “Even in subjects such as history or English, we offer optional At Work modules, where students can work on consultancy projects.”

Such programmes are valuable, says Andrew Bargery, campus and schools engagement leader at PwC, who has hired students through similar employability and leadership programmes at the universities of Manchester and Essex.

“We take students from every degree discipline so having a programme that targets all first year students will help raise awareness that students can apply for a range of careers regardless of what they’re studying.”

Critics might say employers are shirking responsibility for training by pushing the costs back to universities. Not if companies continue to do their bit, says Mr Bargery. “We’ll never use programmes like this to replace the training and development that we offer, but it does mean that students are better prepared for what’s to come.”

Ms Sefa says: “It’s almost a matter of co-parenting. Universities are the final step before we enter the real world, and as a parent they should ensure we are equipped for the future.”

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