21st Century Leaders report: Building practice into the curriculum to boost employability

New report calls for every business graduate to undertake vital work experience as a core element of their course.

Employers are seeking ‘business-ready’ graduates, but are not doing enough to offer extended, meaningful work experience through business schools a new report from the Association of Business Schools (ABS), CMI (the Chartered Management Institute), and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has discovered.

Business schools and employers urged to be partners in business

The report - ‘21st Century Leaders: Building practice into the curriculum to boost employability’ - highlights a gap in the collaboration between employers and business schools. Employers are looking for graduates equipped with hands-on experience, practical skills and a business-ready mindset, but are not doing enough to offer them work experience. According to a survey of CMI’s members, only one fifth of businesses offer placements or internships to business school students, although the vast majority (89%) recognise the importance of integrating work experience into business courses. Half of them are not able to find the right candidates for managerial positions, but less than one fifth look at business schools to find talent.

Business schools, on the other hand, can do more to support students and incentivise them to take meaningful work experience. A survey of ABS members found that 81% of respondent institutions offered undergraduate students the opportunity to take a sandwich-year placement in 2012-2013; a third said that these placements are the best option for students and employers, among other things because they give students the chance to have a longer and more beneficial experience. Business schools could do more to promote these courses. They could also improve the level of information they provide to employers about the talent that is available. One out of three employers surveyed by the CMI reported that lack of information and of an easy point of contact are key barriers in their collaboration with business schools.

The report also recommends that business schools develop stronger relationships with SMEs through platforms such as the Small Business Charter. Two out of three employers believe that business courses focus on big business rather than SMEs. The latter should have access to one-stop portals and a single point of contact at business schools, so that they are relieved of the burden of excessive form filling. They could also co-design with business schools courses that meet their needs.

Learning by doing a key issue to boost employability

Experiential learning is highlighted as a key element to bring the curriculum closer to the needs of the job market. The report includes case studies of programmes at UK business schools that put emphasis on learning by doing, enabling business graduates to apply theory into real world situations and acquire communication and problem-solving skills, both highly appreciated by employers. However, less practical skills such as an understanding of business ethics, sustainability, and a global mindset attuned to diversity, are also increasingly important for employers and should be integrated into the curriculum.

Finally, business schools should also encourage their students to participate in mentoring schemes to help them develop their personal development, people management and entrepreneurial skills; four out of five UK business schools offer this opportunity to graduates according to the survey of ABS members.

Report launched at the House of Commons on 9th June

The report was launched at the House of Commons on 9th June. Lord Young of Graffham, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Small Business and Enterprise, highlighted the importance of small businesses in today's interconnected world where everyone can be an entrepreneur, and recommended that business schools should enable young people to use their business acumen and creativity to set up their own businesses. The report was hailed as an important development by Anthony McClaran, Chief Executive of the QAA, Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the CMI, and Gareth Humphreys MBE, HR Adviser (Education and Apprentices) at MBDA.

Professor Jane Harrington, PVC and Executive Dean at the Faculty of Business and Law, University of the West of England, and Vice Chair of the ABS, said that “curricula must be robust and relevant, enabling students to embrace an innovative, ethical and entrepreneurial ethos and bring this into the workplace”, adding that “business schools should invest in developing practical ways of building a closer relationship with local employers, and making it easier to access what is on offer.”

Professor Harrington also highlighted case studies of business schools that actively support students through innovative programmes focusing on employability. Examples included programmes at Cass Business School, Manchester Metropolitan Business School, Nottingham Trent University, and the University of Hertfordshire and Open University Business Schools, which offer to students a wide range of work experience and networking opportunities with employers, along with the opportunity to gain qualifications that provide professional recognition of their skills. An example of such a scheme was presented by business students from the University of West England who spoke about their studies and how these have enabled them to become entrepreneurs by putting emphasis on learning by doing.

Background to the report

Problem solving is one of the key skills taught at business schools. But how good are business schools at problem solving? One of the main challenges they currently face is engaging with external stakeholders, including industry and business, to make sure they teach a curriculum that is relevant for the needs of the 21st century economy. This was singled out as a key issue by the ABS's influential Innovation Task Force report, published in May 2013, which recommended designing practice into courses and bringing more practitioners into business schools. However, little research had been done so far though to identify best practice and recommend practical ways to revise the business & management curriculum so that this provides graduates with the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience.

The ABS, CMI and QAA identified this gap and decided last summer to join forces to shape together their vision for business education in the UK. Throughout the current academic year these three organisations held 13 workshops across the UK, attended by more than 500 business school leaders, academics, employers and thought leaders to discuss about the business & management curriculum and graduate employability.

Input from these events, along with statistical analysis conducted by ABS and data from surveys of business schools and employers, provided the raw material for the ‘21st Century Leaders: Building practice into the curriculum to boost employability’ report, published on 9th June 2014.