Parliament looks at ways to increase employability of EU's graduates
MEPs and experts on Tuesday (23 February) deplored the 'mismatch' between labour market needs and the offer of university students, with business associations asking the EU to draft different rankings based on the employability and careers of graduates.
"There is a mismatch between demand of companies and the output from the higher educational institutions, regarding the skills and the professions of graduates," Robert Gabriel, a university rector from Hungary said at a public hearing in the European Parliament focusing on the higher education policies in the EU.
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His demands for greater flexibility and response to labour market demands were echoed by several other experts and MEPs discussing the role of the EU in fostering links between universities and the business sector.
The EU executive in 2008 launched a "University-Business Dialogue", a platform of discussion described in an audit carried out by Deloitte, a consultancy firm, as needing more "ownership" by other actors – national, regional and local authorities – in order to become viable.
As education policies remain the competence of national and regional governments, the EU's role can only be that of a facilitator and co-ordinator. A list of the 30 best projects linking the academic world to the business sector is currently being drafted by the European Commission and will be published in March 2010.
Hungarian centre-right MEP Pal Schmitt, who is the rapporteur on this matter, said that 50 to 80 percent of graduates do not get a job in the first years, and suggested developing a system through which universities could monitor the careers of their graduates.
His proposals were backed by Eurochambers, the umbrella association of the bloc's chambers of commerce, saying the only way to tackle this mismatch was to reconfigure university rankings around the employability of their students.
"Academics and universities are evaluated on wrong criteria, with the number of publications the Holy Grail. But what should count is if their graduates find the jobs they want or any jobs at all," Ben Butters from Eurochambers said during the hearing.
A new multi ranking system is indeed being developed by the EU commission, where employability is one of the criteria, but it would take some other years to have it finalised, one of the advisors to this project said.
Mr Butters also criticised some member states where "you need a PhD to even speak to universities" and where there are no ways of involving businesses in the management boards of higher education institutions or in the drafting of study plans.
But this was not the case in eastern European countries, where businesses could partly finance the increasingly cash-strapped universities. Mr Gabriel from Hungary even described his university as "the biggest company" in the region of Pecs, with its 30,000 students, and himself as their CEO.
"There is a force field between being at the cutting edge of research and technology and at the same time reducing government spending – especially now during the crisis. We've seen the quality of education going down, we've also seen a lot of private investments, especially in eastern Europe, where the demand for higher education cannot be matched by the state. Governments can simply not afford it," Howard Newby, the vice-chancellor of Britain's University of Liverpool said.
The best way for universities to cope with all the different demands – e-learning, research and technology, but also social sciences and arts – was to have more autonomy, so as to decide on their own what their strengths are and invest in those areas, Mr Newby argued.
The business-oriented focus was however challenged by a representative of a German students union, Florian Kaiser, who argued that employability may not be the silver bullet for youth unemployment. "Higher education institutions can create jobs themselves," he argued.
Mr Kaiser criticised the increasingly "elitist" attitude of universities as they become ever more profit-oriented and "forget about the primary role of providing education."
British Labour MEP Mary Honeyball said that there will always be a "tension between giving students employable skills and knowledge for its own sake,which can then be developed for research." The only way out of this dilemma was for each university to decide what it is best at, she argued.