A plastic fron struggling with books and a calculator

The latest Global University Employability Ranking has been released with the most predictive factor of graduate employability being professional experience alongside a high degree of specialisation.

What this means for undergraduate students is that it’s important to step into the world of work as early as possible as well as keeping on top of your grades (who would have thought!). It’s important to engage with the career development process early, through writing CVs in your first year and looking at what skills you’ve gained in your first year and how they might be relevant and useful in the workplace. You also need to develop connections, attend career-focused programmes and apply for internships and other work placements.

Paradoxically, graduation from a top university is less important to hiring employers, however the most prestigious universities lead the way in employability. As noted in the Times Higher Education, it may be that university reputation is a short cut to finding top applicants (it’s more likely that the most employable applicants come from the most prestigious universities), especially when students apply across the globe. For instance, in 2014 there were more than 5 million internationally mobile students around the world, compared to just over 2 million in 2000. An employer knowing a university brand name will give a graduate the edge. 

How do we define employability?

Unfortunately, although employers and universities agree that employability is increasingly important for graduates, the term employability is vague, with the explanation ‘a set of job-related aptitudes, attitudes and behaviour’ being the most agreed upon definition (90% of respondents) naming adaptability, teamwork and communication as some of these traits.

This means that it’s hard for universities to ‘teach’ employability, and many universities focus on the chance for students to have a broad range of experiences at university, connecting with many different people, from a range of professions. They also advocate a broad-based curriculum so students develop leadership skills, critical thinking skills and technical expertise needed to successfully navigate workplace and societal challenges and opportunities.

However, although this approach is promoted in universities, it goes against employers’ ideas that “professional experience” and a “high degree of specialisation” are the best predictors of employability in graduates.

Because behaviour and mindset is so difficult to judge, especially before meeting candidates, employers will do their first level screening based on what we would call objective facts, such as whether graduates have got the minimum requirements (qualifications and experience) expected. Beyond that, they might then use internships and work experience as a testing ground - many companies stated that internships would become more relevant in the future in their response.

The top UK universities

4. The University of Cambridge

7. The University of Oxford

16. Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine

23. King's College London

24. University of Manchester

32. University of Edinburgh

48. University College London

84. The University of Bristol

90. University of Birmingham

93. University of Nottingham

How does the Global University Employability Ranking 2016 work?

Two panels of participants were surveyed between April and July 2016. Both panels included respondents from 20 countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US.

The first panel consisted of recruiters at a management level who had experience of hiring or working with graduates. Each person was given a list of local universities (with the option to add more) and had up to 15 votes to cast for those who produced the best graduates in terms of employability. Participants with experience recruiting internationally were also asked to select from a global list of universities.

The second panel consisted of 3,450 managing directors of international companies. Participants could cast a maximum of 10 votes on both the local and global lists of universities that had been produced by the first panel. They could also add universities from a database.

Votes were then aggregated into scores for each university to produce the ranking. 

30% of companies were in the business sector, just under 30% in the IT and almost 20% in the engineering industry.