The Role of Graduate Employability in Economic Productivity in the UK

RS119_20140702 Ulster University Graduation 028
Homogenisation vs. Innovation in employability

A range of graduate employability interventions exist across the UK Higher Education (HE) sector, involving experiential learning, skills development and on-the-job training among others. Employability is already high on the agenda for universities and the notion of graduate employability is further amplified through awards and rankings channelled at the recognition of employability efforts of universities – one example is THE’s Global University Employability Rankings.

Amidst this context of the growing significance of graduate employability, questions arise on whether the UK HE sector does enough to ensure that graduates are workforce-ready. In 2016 the UK experienced a 2.2% drop in the number of 21 to 30-year-old graduates in skilled work compared with a year earlier. About one-in-five graduates were in low or medium skilled jobs on average across the whole of the working population.

What is evident from the wider HE sector responses to date is that employability interventions often focus on homogenisation as opposed to experimental innovation. By this we mean that employability ‘offers’ often centre on generic skill development, a standardised careers service, generic employability modules in the curriculum and so forth.

Rarely, does one see a massified personal approach to enabling bespoke personal and professional development. Innovation is required in future provision – curricular and service level – to ensure that academic journeys develop in parallel to career journeys for each one of our graduates. These observations toward a lack of innovation are supported by our prior research into the UK HE sector's employability provision across 35 institutional employability programmes conducted earlier this year.

Having said that, there are a few examples of small-scale innovations, which have the potential to disrupt the graduate employability landscape, as we currently know it. Such examples of small-scale innovations include the World of Work at LJMU, the Global Leaders Programme at Coventry and of course, BU’s very own Global Talent Programme to name a few. However, more needs to be done to ensure that this good practice and innovation is multiplied across the whole of the UK HE sector to support economic productivity across the UK.


The correlation between graduate talent and economic productivity

The contribution of skills to productivity growth has been emphasised by the UK government as part of their UK Skills and Productivity in an International Context paper and more recently by the 2017 Industrial Strategy Green Paper where developing skills is seen as a key pillar that will shape the future strategy.

At least one-third of the UK’s productivity growth in the decade to 2005 can be attributed to the substantial accumulation of graduate skills in the labour force so graduates do play an important role in economic productivity, not just on a regional but also on a national level.

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills and Education Committees also highlighted the strong links between graduate skills and economic performance and productivity. Econometric analysis for 15 countries (including France and Germany as well as the UK and US) suggests that a 1% increase in the graduate share of the workforce is linked with 0.2–0.5% growth in long run productivity levels.

Higher education plays a pivotal role in this process, not only in the UK but also further afield. Germany and Sweden, alongside the UK, experience high rates of productivity partly through the provision of good education and skills development opportunities.

The existing evidence points to a strong correlation between graduate talent and economic productivity, but the UK has a productivity problem as highlighted by Chris Clegg. He suggests that on average, British workers were around 30% less productive than those in the US, Germany and France.


Ideas for the future

The 2017 Global Skills Index suggests that the UK has improved its overall skills position but further work needs to be undertaken to address the talent mismatch. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) estimates that by 2024, 46% of all UK employment will exist within highly skilled occupations – this can further amplify the widening talent mismatch problem and it’s subsequent influence on economic productivity.

We feel that the UK HE sector can rise to this challenge in one of the following ways:


  • Create an integrative relationship with employers – Unless employers and universities join forces in shaping the next generation of talent in our classrooms, the graduate talent mismatch will be even more notable as the gap between the skills available in the workforce and the skills required by industry is likely to widen even further.


  • Nurture skills such as entrepreneurship and innovation at every subject level – not only do we want to develop confident job seekers but also job creators, who will be able to provide more graduate-level opportunities which, as current research suggests, is a challenge leading to many graduates engaging in non-graduate level jobs.


  • Develop academic staff talent - there is a significant opportunity to up-skill and re-skill our academic staff through carefully tailored and orchestrated capacity building interventions staff are at the heart of this success as they are responsible for educating the next generation of graduates and prepare them for the world of work in partnership with employers.


  • Harness the power of Big data and predictive analytics – Big data can join forces with predictive analytics in order to help us understand current and future skills and talent trends so that we can fine-tune our curriculum and pedagogic practice in order to develop future-proof graduates, who are equipped with the skills, competencies and attributes to succeed on a global stage. 


Dr Dean Hristov, Global Talent Research Analyst, Bournemouth University
Dr Sonal Minocha, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement), Bournemouth University