Academic institutions and the skills factor

Mark Hudson looks at how some universities are bridging the workplace skills gap.

Reading time: 4 minutes.

The work-ready capabilities employers expect from today’s graduates – and the skills students want to develop as part of their higher education investment – are altering the face of the university experience.

The demands of professional life – notably the need for graduates to become productive in the workplace sooner rather than later – mean young people are now less able to enjoy the luxury of furthering their education simply for the pleasure of learning.

For aspiring workplace entrants, there is a greater imperative to gain both knowledge and skills to kick-start a career and justify the cost of tuition fees and living expenses.

With detailed information about universities more widely available online, students are now able to research more comprehensively and make more informed choices about which institutions, courses and the industry connections they have are most likely to build their employability.

Recent research conducted by the UK Government’s Department of Education into graduate outcomes post-university has shown ‘stark disparities‘ in the earnings and employment prospects for students studying the same subjects at different institutions.

Some universities are now seeing the value of incorporating professional certifications for their students alongside established courses.

This prompted the Government’s Education Secretary at the time, Damian Hinds MP, to ‘express concerns’ about university courses that were not providing students with value for money.

And such is the level of dissatisfaction among some students – according to research from the Higher Education Policy Institute – that more than a third (36%) said they would have opted for something different after leaving school, such as a different institution (12%) or course (8%).

Academic study at higher education level, to echo the former Education Secretary’s comments, “has the potential to expand horizons, enrich understanding and transform lives”. However, if certain students studying certain courses at particular universities are reaping comparatively greater benefits when they leave, there must be another way to equip graduates to compete in the world of work.

The skills factor

Increasing pressure on organisations and businesses to perform, compete and respond to rapidly changing economic demands means there is no longer the space for entry level graduates to orientate at a leisurely pace. Employers need graduates to contribute value sooner than ever before.

Therefore, employers have an expectation that college curricula will be relevant to their needs. Some colleges can offer this through the strength of academic staff’s connections with industry. However, most universities maintain a traditional focus on research and high-quality academic teaching rather than developing ‘work-ready’ graduates.

Student and business expectations, plus pressure on university budgets, the need for alternative sources of revenue and Government funding becoming more dependent on delivering outcomes has led to colleges looking for other options.


Already, some universities are now seeing the value of incorporating professional certifications for their students alongside established courses.

Professional certifications in action

In practice, what does obtaining a professional certification mean to a student in further or higher education? First, it provides a common language and set of skills that could already be familiar to existing employees in an organisation and helps to start developing a professional approach to work. 

Often, professional courses have been devised with input from experienced people working in a particular field and this offers valuable knowledge and tools to enable new entrants to work more effectively and collaboratively in their workplace.

With an increasing emphasis on using ‘high velocity’ methods in organisations – such as Agile – and adopting new technologies that optimise performance and enable organisations to respond more promptly to customer expectations, the relevant skills are often available only through specialist training courses and certifications.

The opportunity for students to enhance a CV and demonstrate relevant work skills at the point of applying for jobs means universities are starting to recognise the value of adding professional certifications to their core academic curricula.

The value of this for student employability is now being acknowledged both by course lecturers and people working in college careers services or centres for continuing education.

Universities, as educational establishments which are already delivering a high quality of learning, can choose to become training organisations for the purpose of delivering professional training and certification. Alternatively, there are numerous accredited training organisations that can step into the role and allow undergraduates to learn and certify as part of their course, or in addition to it.

Developing the university of the future

The fast-changing economic environment in the UK – and, indeed, worldwide – means universities need to do everything possible to prepare their students for the world of work and equip them with skills and capabilities beyond what they learn on traditional degree courses.

Including professional certifications in university curricula means embedding tried and tested approaches that are already adopted by organisations to support employees’ workplace development. 

Along with technical knowledge, that includes cultivating soft skills such as communication, problem solving and negotiation as part of the foundation for their future working lives.


About the author

Mark Hudson is academia manager at AXELOS



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