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Does British education prepare students for real life?

Finding a job straight out of university is a tough thing to do, made harder by the growing numbers of graduates vying for the same positions.

Receiving a higher education and excelling at academics greatly improves the chances of gaining an interview, but in many instances, the skills learned outside of the classroom are what separates a candidate from the crowd.

Nick Walsh (far right) and other recent graduates of the University of Edinburgh
Credit: Nick Walsh

A growing concern, however, is that many universities simply do not prepare their students for the real world of work. It quickly dawns on many students that there is often a mighty gulf between academic learning and real world applicability.

Statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications indicate that while the overall pass rate has remained stable over the past few years the numbers of A-level grades have fallen slightly, perhaps a number whose decline can be tied to employers asking for more practical skills.

The British system has received criticism in recent years for its focus on exam results and school, college or university rankings — criticism being focused on students being taught to take exams rather than to excel in their field. A YouGov survey from 2013 gave a very poor glimpse at the readiness of graduates in the eyes of their employers, with only 19 percent of employers believing their graduates were prepared for the job.

The opinions of employers are important, but of equal importance is the confidence students have when they leave the realm of academics and attempt to enter the workforce. Nick Walsh (far right in the image above), a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh says that “The University focused only on education and careers” adding that “my education prepared my solely for getting a job, taxes and pensions for example were not covered.”

Nick went on to mention how he felt that his particular course did well at developing hands on knowledge while also giving him a good basis of transferable skills. He admits there are “numerous degrees that do not leave you with these [practical] skills” and reflects that “more sessions to prepare us for a post-university world would have been appreciated.”

Nick is not alone in his desire for more preparation for a “post-university world,” Liz Szucs decided to end her university course early because she didn’t believe that it was driving her in the right direction.

In Liz’ experience, she “didn’t feel prepared at all for a career.” She chose to look elsewhere in order to “pursue something that would give [her] more valid career options.” Liz is now looking to Australia to complete her degree in hopes that she will find a course that better caters to her specific needs going forward in life.

2017 graduate Will Roberson interning for the Charlotte Checkers
Credit: Will Roberson

Not all graduates however feel unprepared, and lessons can be learned from outside of the United Kingdom. The American liberal arts college provides a broader spectrum of skills due to the broader General Education system. One such institution, Queens University of Charlotte, requires students to fulfill a certain number of internship hours in order to graduate. This requirement has been a vital part of 2017 graduate Will Roberson’s (pictured interning for the Charlotte Checkers) success straight out of university.

Will claims that this internship requirement was “the most influential factor in [his] ability to be a leading candidate” helping him win interviews at five major professional sports teams, one of which was his childhood football team the Carolina Panthers for whom he currently works for.

The American system not only provides opportunities, but also encourages students to partake in extracurricular activities such as the NCAA sports programs. These programs in Will’s experience have “been of paramount importance in preparing for a professional career” teaching him how to “manage time and really get things done” which are invaluable skills when it comes to managing hectic work days.

A commonality found between both systems is that the world of work is competitive, and graduates must do everything possible to enhance their profile. The Liberal Arts program provides ample opportunities to do so through their curriculum whereas those in the U.K. may have to look away from campus to find the keys to their success.

Perhaps the influence of high profile employers will persuade institutions in the U.K. to adapt their way of teaching and increase the employability of graduates.

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Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV