by DAWN BENNETT, COLIN JEVONS, ELIZABETH KNIGHT
and SUBRAMANIAM ANANTHRAM
By 2019, almost half the Australian population had engaged in higher education (HE). In contrast to dominant media assumptions, this is not a sector that serves a small, relatively employable elite.
The employability of 21st-century workers demands career-long attention: “the ability to find, create and sustain meaningful work and learning across the career lifespan and in multiple contexts” (Bennett 2019). This is more complex than helping graduates get their first job. With funding constraints, COVID-19 and a diverse student population, employability development is no mean task.
Bennett and colleagues analysed self-reported employABILITY data from 6,131 undergraduate business students enrolled with Australian universities.* The team explored responses to the question of what students would change about their degree.
Findings highlight that many students are unsure why they are studying business and they’re worried about whether they can establish a career. Although students are committed to completing their programmes, they do not know how to position themselves for the transition to work and their thinking is largely limited to the immediate graduate outcome.
“There are so many of us who become lost in the transition from student to worker… Most of us don’t have a clue what to do after we graduate,” (second year)
So, what would students change? Indicative of the solution-focussed nature of many business programmes, many students offered solutions alongside their perceived problems. These are summarised by this first-year student.
“Degree courses should be more flexible: for example, students should be able to design their own degree in order to meet the knowledge and skills they need in adulthood.”
In some instances, students called for specific changes in traditional higher education practices including the removal of exams and lectures. Others realised that employability requires effort from students!
“While higher education does prepare students to some extent, the reality is the majority of students must prepare themselves. “(4th year)
We need to ensure that courses are relevant to the changing needs of the labour market, students understand the relevance of their studies, and institutions understand the complex nature of undergraduate study in the 2020s. We also need advocacy to find its way into the mainstream media, countering national messages against higher education (e.g the Prime Minister’s Press Club address).
Business disciplines are popular with international students and it is reasonable to expect that both the international and domestic markets will want a clearer value proposition in a post-COVID world. If Australia’s business graduates are to meet their potential, they need capabilities that go beyond their discipline and beyond the point of graduation; they also need to be able to articulate their offer to the labour market. This highlights the need for a systematic and inter-institutional nuanced approach to realising graduate employability across business higher education thinking and practice. If we don’t act, we will be left behind.
Bennett, Knight, Jevons and Ananthram, “Business students’ thinking about their studies and future careers,” Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (June 2020), here.
Dawn Bennett (Curtin U), Twitter: @toemployability @careerequity). Colin Jevons (Monash U Business School), Twitter: @colinjevons). Elizabeth Knight (Victoria U), Twitter: @lizziebknight, Subramaniam Ananthram (Curtin U), Twitter: @DoctorSubra
The team acknowledges the Australian Business Deans Council for funding our research and Curtin University for their support of the employABILITY Initiative. The employABILITY tool and resources can be accessed via the educator site located at https://developingemployability.edu.au/.