Opinion / 17.07.17 / 4 min read

Are universities doing enough to prepare students for “real life”?

Real life is: dealing with crap. Struggling to pay rent. Trying to be healthy. Juggling bills. Going for a run. Feeling knackered. Feeling great. Wishing you had the answers. Realising you have none. Starting in one direction. Getting stuck. Trying something else. Moving on. Learning stuff. Buying stuff. Finding your people. Biting your lip. Speaking up. Asking why. What if? Who am I? Who could I be? What do I do next?

Are universities doing enough to prepare students for “real life”?

How the hell can you prepare for that? It’s a pertinent question. And one that requires us to ask a few more:

What do students want from university?

What do employers expect from graduates?

And how can universities help with the transition?

This article makes some assumptions. It is biased toward a certain demographic. The term “real life” is used here in the context of conventional lifestyle choices. The assumption is: graduates want to bag a full-time job after uni, because that’s the point of all this, right?

Students want to feel confident that attending their prospective institution will set them up for a successful career from the moment they engage, via online research or open days. University branding and marketing plays a crucial role. The overarching brand must be strong, with brand identity and positioning clearly defined and communicated. 

But attracting students is only the first step. 

Once enrolled, universities must work hard on support services and events of real value to students, right the way through the education process. Strategic input, communications planning and useful marketing collateral are all essential if universities are to stand out above the rest.

What do students want?

Value for money. A sense of direction. Relevant knowledge. To be self-sufficient.

Faced with increased tuition fees and a highly competitive job market, the thought of not being able to get the holy grail grad job after graduating is quite frankly, depressing. It’s easy to assume that once armed with a degree, you are hireable and will find the job of your dreams. But of course it’s not that simple. A degree shows that you’ve applied yourself, stretched your learning, been exposed to others’ views, passed exams and worked towards something concrete. But it’s not a blueprint for your career. It doesn’t tell you how to get there, or what type of job will suit you. 

“Around one in three graduates end up being “mismatched” to the jobs they find after leaving university, research by Universities UK suggests. (The Guardian, Jan 2018)”

That said, students need as much clarity and advice as they can get before the job hunt starts. 

What do employers want? 

Work is a maze of things. It shapes you and you shape it. 

While attracting bright minds is important, employers want the whole package. Everything from emotional intelligence, to a good aptitude for learning, a conscientious work ethic, good time management, money-management and communication skills. But is the education system delivering? 

Schools, colleges and universities are all under immense pressure to hit grades and maintain funding. Teachers are squeezed. Lecturers are striking. The curriculum is chockablock. And yet the system needs to find a way to ensure every student passing through its doors has acquired enough soft skills, life skills and education to take them further. 

Mentorship schemes, work experience, money management classes, mindfulness guidance and extracurricular activities can all be significantly helpful in building these skills – something which many businesses do and should continue to support. Partnerships between universities and businesses are a deciding factor for many prospective students.  

“Over the past few years, a university’s links with industry and ability to offer placement opportunities has “crossed the line” to become as important a factor in a student’s decision to apply to a university as its reputation.” (Marketing Week Sep 2017)

But just as the education system needs to deliver. Companies do too. Good direction, culture, opportunities and incentives matter.

Employers want great talent. But they need great talent to stay.

What do employers need?

Employers need to offer a consistent and appealing Employee Value Proposition. An EVP centres around opportunity, people, organisation, work and rewards. Organisations that effectively deliver on their EVP can decrease annual employee turnover by just under 70% and increase new hire commitment by nearly 30% (Gartner, 2019).

This is a core part of business strategy that hugely impacts the bottom line. It can’t be ignored. If employers are to get what they want, they first need to ensure their EVP is fit for purpose. Keep revisiting it. Reassess promise VS reality. This will increase the number of quality applications from those graduates choosing where to channel their efforts. And will arc back to why people decide to move on, if and when they do.

How can universities help?

Universities need to be aware of student demands, lifestyle demands and the educational and personal development skills required to be a successful, self-sufficient individual in the working world. Of course students must take responsibility for themselves and their progression, and the most proactive and self-aware among them will likely do well, but what universities must do is provide the skills, collateral and support services to help prepare students in the best possible way, so that their own personal efforts are building on a strong foundation.

None of this has an effect though if marketing isn’t employed to reach the students and make them aware of the services. We’re already seeing a variety of approaches in the higher education sphere. From online Careers Explorer services (University of Kent), to a gamified careers support approach (Norwich University of the Arts) and a mini consultancy programme (Queen Mary). Student accommodation providers such as Unite Students place a lot of emphasis on content creation using video content to provide guidance on everything from laundry to planet-saving tips, while a custom-built app is used to connect flatmates. Input of slick design and well-considered digital interfaces is taking student-related tools to the next level. It’s an exciting area of development and one that will no doubt continue to show growth in setting up the next generation of students for the big wide world.

Sarah Dennis

Marketing Director