“We want to deliver students who are employable,” says Simon Beausaert, Assistant Professor at the Department of Educational Research and Development (ERD) at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics (SBE). “Otherwise we are not doing a good job.”
Rolf van der Velden (left) and Simon Beausaert (right)
(Photo: Sander Oleana, Eye on Eye photography)
With graduate employability high on the agenda, a key concern for universities today is to identify which skills students need to develop during their limited time in higher education to have the best chances to succeed in a competitive labour market.
Students themselves have become more demanding. They are more conscious about their decisions and more aware of the study programmes that will provide them with better professional opportunities, according to Beausaert.
“Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, a university degree does not automatically give graduates a free ticket to a job,” says Prof. Rolf van der Velden, programme director at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA) at SBE.
Today, the development of employability skills is a main priority for universities, students and businesses alike.
Employability, which can broadly be defined as the ability to find a job and to stay employed, is not a frozen concept, however. “The environment is changing so much and at such a fast pace that the notion of employability is being redefined all the time,” Beausaert comments.
He refers to the work of two experts on the topic, Claudia Van Der Heijde and Beatrice Van Der Heijden, to outline the five core competencies which are linked to employability. Applicants should possess the necessary knowledge to do the job, demonstrate flexibility, both passive and active, be able to strike a healthy balance between their private and professional lives, and feel a sense of connection with the company.
Nowadays, staying employable seems increasingly linked to the capacity to deal with changes. “The pro-active attitude with regards to flexibility, or the ability to anticipate changes and to act on opportunities, are new and important factors of employability,” Beausaert points out.
Surveys conducted at ROA have shown that while university graduates tend to work in areas related to their field of study at the beginning of their career, they often spread out into different domains later on. Survey results even indicate that those who perform very well in their own specialisation often turn out to be successful in other fields. This is because the specialisation is also a vehicle to develop more general academic skills. “There is no contradiction in saying that specialists also have good general skills,” says Van der Velden.
How to increase graduate employability
The challenge facing universities is to give students the most relevant set of skills to meet the demands of the labour market. However, spending time on developing one type of skill might happen at the expense of another skill. “At some point there is a trade off and we need to really think about what we need to teach, when we need to teach it and in what kind of environment,” explains Van der Velden. Foreign languages, for example, appear to be best learned at a very young age, whereas leadership skills may be more suited to be developed later in life.
The need to better understand and improve the learning process has led to an increased interest in education research in the last decennia.
“We need to defreeze the traditional view on learning,” Beausaert says. “People are not thinking about how much knowledge they gain from informal conversations in the coffee room, and how much it can enhance their employability.”
Both Van der Velden and Beausaert agree to say that Dutch universities, and Maastricht University in particular, are leaders in education research. “Dutch universities offer many active and innovative learning methods,” says Van der Velden. “By doing this they also create an environment where students are able to practice and develop social skills while learning academic skills, which in turn, enhance their employability skills.”
According to Van der Velden, Maastricht University boasts “by far, the biggest group of experts in the Netherlands concerned with education research.” By pioneering the Problem Based Learning system as the foundation for its education model, Maastricht University attracted a wide range of educationalists from the start, nearly 40 years ago. “You could say that education research is in the genes of the university,” he comments with a smile.
Van der Velden rebuffs the persistent debate in higher education circles on whether universities should deliver specialists or generalists in a changing world where specialised knowledge quickly becomes outdated.
“This is a pointless discussion. Educationalists such as Simon Beausaert, and psychologists too, have shown that you cannot learn general academic skills without content. The two go hand in hand.”
The same observation holds for specific knowledge. “You may think that you can google your way around and become an expert, but without a framework, the information collected on the internet is meaningless,” he says. “You need to learn how to sift through the overflow of information.”
New tools to improve employability
The Education and Research Department at SBE is developing tools to help individual students and employees improve their employability.
“We have designed an e-portfolio tool for students, which enables them to reflect on their core and specific competencies and to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The capacity to reflect is a core competency in itself because it is linked with staying aware of changes and being able to adapt,” Beausaert explains.
Since 2011, the e-portfolio tool has been implemented in four master programmes at SBE: entrepreneurship, economics, organisation and strategy and the management of learning. With employers increasingly keen on reliable performance indicators, it can also prove useful during the job application process.
For employees, Beausaert and his team have developed an app (www.fl2i.com) which looks at the way informal learning takes place at work, through the exchange of information and feedback between colleagues, in a pro-active and social manner. The app tests people on 16 questions and can then formulate conclusions about their employability. It can also offer advice for companies participating in the project on how they can support informal learning and by doing so, enhance their employees’ employability.
Education and employability
SBE is currently working on a broad, multi-year education policy, in which employability takes centre stage. Various projects fall under this umbrella.
One of them is to extend the e-portfolio tool into more master’s programmes. Another one is to offer, beyond case studies, more internship opportunities and practical experience for students. Moreover, students are encouraged to link their academic theses with competencies that they still need to develop, or to questions that they wish to address later on in their professional career.
According to surveys conducted by ROA, the main condition for success in the labour market is professional expertise. “If you are not well-trained as an accountant or an architect, it’s over and out,” says Van der Velden.
A freshly published ROA study on the ‘Employability of Higher Education Graduates from the Employers’ Perspective’ shows that employers are highly risk averse. “This was a striking result of our survey,” says Van der Velden. “We found that employers try to avoid at all times to have underperforming people in their team. They’d rather recruit a “garanteed” mediocre candidate than someone with a less clear profile who might turn out to be either extremely good or extremely bad.”
The task for universities is therefore to develop instruments that can give future employers adequate, reliable and valid information on graduates’ skills. “Diplomas are not always sufficient indicators, we need to make sure that grades are not inflated,” he points out.
A crucial aspect to identify is what are the skills that everybody needs to have and which skills lend themselves for specialisation.
“We tend to think about employability as if everybody needs to have the same skills,” says Van der Velden. “But that’s not true, because not everyone needs to be an entrepreneur or an innovator. So we need to ask ourselves: what other skills are needed in a team? Although we have some ideas on this type of questions, my view is that we are still at the beginning. These are topics for which we need a research agenda for the coming 20 years.”
By Sueli Brodin