With increased competition and uncertainty across the global higher education market, what can universities do to attract and retain students? Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer – but focusing on vocational skills may prove beneficial.
Photo by Sarah Shaffer.
Research by Civitas Learning published in 2018 reveals that a lot of students in the US are quitting college/ university despite the fact that they’ve accumulated the majority of the credits they need to pass their programmes.
In fact, around one in five students who abandon their studies before graduation get 75 per cent of the way through before they decide to leave, with one in 10 reaching 90 per cent of the credits needed to pass.
In the UK, data analysed by the Press Association found that from the 2011/12 to 2016/17 academic years, 100 of the 150 of the higher education institutions analysed witnessed a higher percentage of students dropping out.
Why are more students dropping out?
Some critics ascribe this increase to a trend in universities admitting students who don’t possess the academic skills required for a degree, while others suggest that more intervention is needed to help students make the transition into higher ed.
When it comes to admitting students, many candidates are understandably hesitant to make a commitment in such an uncertain climate, especially if they aren’t anywhere near guaranteed a job at the end of it.
This provides universities with an opportunity to hone in on vocation skills.
What is vocational education?
In 2018 the Higher Education Funding Council for England released an analysis on how vocational various degree courses are. Traditionally speaking, a vocational subject is one that prepares students for a specific set of occupations shortly after graduation.
According to the analysis, 20 per cent of first-degree courses are “highly” or “fairly” vocational. Those studying subjects like medicine and dentistry fall into the first bracket, unsurprisingly. However, even academic subjects like English Language, History and Business Management contain vocational elements.
What’s more, these “broad” knowledge subjects are linked with occupations that are expected to witness an increase in workforce share in the coming years. By 2030 employers are expected to prioritise skills like originality and active learning.
With this in mind, universities need to shape their students into versatile candidates for an ever-changing jobs market. Skills such as critical thinking will be key.
The global vocational skills gap
Employers in different countries are struggling to recruit graduates with the skills needed for work, especially when it comes to jobs in the technology sector. The Open University Business Barometer found 90% of employers struggled to recruit workers with the required skills in a 12-month period (2017/18).
Another study, this time by the World Economic Forum in 2016, shows that the rapid pace of technological change means that 50% of knowledge gained during the first year of a four-year technology programme is out of date by the time the individual graduates. Therefore, to attract and retain the best students and prepare them for today's workplace, a culture of lifelong vocational learning must become commonplace.
Updating the curriculum isn’t enough because “education is unable to adapt fast enough and it’s also constantly changing at a rate that’s hard to keep pace with. Employers ultimately need individuals that combine technical expertise or the ability to quickly acquire it, with softer skills like data judgement and the ability to teach and persuade others,” said Gartner’s then HR practice leader Tom Handcock in 2017.
One way a propensity for lifelong vocation learning can be taught is by positioning teachers as facilitators who encourage self-directed learning. With teachers as facilitators at least some of the time, students learn actively, more peer-to-peer learning takes place and individuals are better equipped to apply learning in different contexts. Ultimately, this stands them in good stead for the workforce of today.
Some universities are addressing the skills gap by implementing apprenticeships and employer partnerships. Work placements provide students with the opportunity to earn money while honing their transferable skills. Apprenticeships are also an attractive feature to prospective candidates who are concerned about debt and employability post-study.
The rise of the degree apprenticeship
In a bid to attract a wider range of students and plug the skills gap, some universities are offering three to six-year degree apprenticeships. Degree apprenticeships are paid and enable learners to gain a bachelor’s or master’s degree as part of their experience. Universities work with employers and professional bodies to create the programmes, which combine part-time study with work.
Programmes like these are expected to grow in coming years. More information on current and upcoming courses in the UK can be found at the UCAS website.