Recent graduates looking to make the transition from learning to earning are faced with a daunting task.  Ritchie Tabor, a recent graduate who has been working with Optimum Consulting over the last year (and as a student intermittently before that), gave an insightful  account of this challenge from the graduate’s perspective in an Oblog earlier this month called The First Leap For Grads!

For the purposes of this blog, I would also like to try to capture the perspectives of the other key players – higher education providers, industry/commerce, and government/peak bodies.  The landscape is characterised by intense competition for scarce hiring opportunities on the demand-side and with challenges to the higher education sector’s ability to provide graduates with employable skills on the supply-side.  Include government, and you invite in the dynamics of electoral consideration, media influence, and budget allocations.

Strange Bedfellows

A comprehensive review of the Business-University Collaboration dynamics in the UK by the Lambert Review in 2003 found that: Companies and universities are not natural partners: their cultures and their missions are different. Universities and governments also find it hard to work together.  Academics value their freedom and independence, resent their reliance on public funding and feel their efforts are not properly appreciated.

If one accepts the assessment that there are very few natural, or aligned, dynamics that would suggest that this triangular relationship between higher education – industry – government can self-manage itself, then is this something we should worry about?

Do we need to close the gap?uni

Some would argue that there are ‘market forces’ at play and that any intervention to close the gap would be foolhardy.  What we are seeing, they would argue, is a corrective market dynamic highlighting that we don’t need as many graduates.  It is a western developed nation’s own hubris, combined with the political influence of an entrenched higher education industry that prevents this market signal from reaching the young and enabling them to choose the better option of an earlier start in the workforce.  This group would likely agree that the transition to a professional career is best served by a few years working on a farm (teach them working values) or alternatively, the army (teach them discipline).

Leaving the student experience to one side for the moment, one of the many problems with this approach is that it grossly under-rates the value of what the higher education sector brings to a nation.  In Australia, 60% of total research is carried out through the university network.  More importantly, it fails to understand that these decisions cannot be made in a vacuum – if you slowdown in your efforts to promote a global-leading higher education sector, you will be left behind.  The international student market currently nets more than $15billion for Australia and is the country’s third-leading export (Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive Officer Go8).   The stakes are high and reputations are vulnerable.

If we also taken into account the importance of the student’s own experience in this value proposition then I think that most people would agree that closing the gap is an important issue for Australia.  This then becomes a question of degree and by what means.  Questions of degree, like changes in weather, will depend on each specific circumstance, but there are some characteristics within these relationships which, I believe, allow for some commentary on the means. 

How can we close the gap?

  • Improve formal links between higher education and industry

Much more needs to be done to persuade industry of the economic benefits to be gained from innovation, and of working in collaboration with university departments. In Australia, The Business/Higher Education Round Table developed a strategic plan for 2015 – 2017 with three key components – leadership (governance, workshops), advocacy (establish KPIs and monitor performance through scorecard, continued consultation with stakeholders), and showcase (raise media awareness, promote and recognize successes).

Universities Australia also has a National Strategy on Work Integrated Learning in University Education.  Work Integrated Learning (WIL) is an “umbrella term for a range of approaches and strategies that integrate theory with the practice of work within a purposefully designed curriculum”.  It aims to target barriers, boost enablers and expand opportunities to partner in WIL from the perspectives of universities, employers and students.  The Strategy has also been developed recognising tight budgetary context.

So, if we recognize that efforts are harnessed and focussed by fostering the right conditions for these to flourish and appreciate that work placements can be heavily staff intensive for the university (and industry) stakeholders, how best to manage the experience?

  • Manage the Work Integrated Learning experience

In order to manage something, you also need to be able to quantify it.  In order to ensure that the number of students having a positive WIL experience increases, you need to be able to measure this.  In order to ensure that a greater portion of industry partners are gaining positive experiences, it is important to be able to record this feedback.

Technology now allows us to develop data in areas where this had previously been highly cumbersome, if not impossible.   The ability to record feedback from the Work Integrated Learning experience throughout the process allows for the possibility to review (amongst other things): if expectations prior to commencement were aligned with the reality of the WIL; if there are supervisors/mentors from industry with outlying scores from students; if there are some faculties with outlying scores as compared to others in their field – positive outliners can be replicated and consistent low outliners can be coached or replaced.

I am not referring to the ability of using this data to improve the student experience on the individual level.  While the data might have such value, this can be determined on a local level. This is about generating high level data that can be used to identify trends across time, across the higher education sector and across industry.

This is a lot more than preparation for a benchmarking exercise – it is about creating data that cannot be captured on a purely local level.  This data would facilitate an improved management of the experience but it is also important for supporting the need to showcase best practices in order to attract industry partners.  This enables the transition from ad-hoc or anecdotal success stories to evidence-based justification.

The daunting gap between learning and earning is something that not only affects the individual student – it has a significant impact on all of us.  The more daunting the gap for the student, the more likely there is a non-alignment between the higher education sector, industry and government.  By capturing data from this experience, we have the ability to carry out high-level management of the process and thereby take corrective actions in order to reduce the gap.

Cristo Mastoroudes – Senior Consultant

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