Graduate Skills for Sustainability

With this research, we aim to help inform universities and businesses about the best way to build the skills profile of students and recent graduates.

Future Graduate Skills: A Scoping Study

This scoping study, by Change Agents UK and the EAUC, examines perspectives from three key stakeholder groups: university leaders, business leaders, and recent graduates. It interrogates their opinions on what ‘sustainability skills’ are, which skills are important for employability and/or sustainability, and how they could be best instilled in students and young people.

 

This piece of research is particularly relevant as it comes at a time when the recently launched Kickstart Training and Development Scheme can provide excellent opportunities to support the creation of meaningful work placements for young people. On top of this, the current Government major expansion of post-18 education and training to level up and prepare workers for the post-Covid economy comes to confirm the need to help young people and adults gain the skills needed to work in sectors which will support UK’s economic recovery.

“This research study highlights the urgent need for cross-sectoral collaboration on skills to evolve into active partnership where new solutions are jointly created. This should involve government, business and the education sector working together to build a framework for skills that will address the challenging targets for Net Zero and the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. Young people must be given a voice in this process; their perspective is important in understanding the skills gaps they currently experience and building a skills strategy for the future.

 

2020 has shown us that radical change achieved at pace can be possible when it is necessary. Young people who were already facing a precarious future have seen this further compromised by the COVID19 pandemic – we must act now to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and experience they will need to succeed as we enter this most challenging global period.” - Lexie Jones, CEO Change Agents UK

Executive Summary

Research Context

National and international carbon emission reduction targets, and the increased recognition of the importance of sustainable business practices, is driving the ‘greening’ of the UK economy. To meet the requirements of the shift towards a low-carbon economy there will need to be a significant change in the knowledge-base and skills of workers and employees across every sector of business. However, research by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS 2012) indicated that there is currently a lack of business managers and leaders who are ‘sustainability literate’. Further, businesses report that they are struggling to find candidates with the right sustainability skills to fit graduate positions, indicating a mismatch between the skills training available at university and the changing requirements of employers (e.g. Arum and Roksa 2014; Calonge and Shah 2016). The economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have created further unknowns in terms of opportunities for young people, and the skills that will be needed in the job market going forward. It is now even more important that graduates are agile in terms of their skills base, and equipped with the right skill sets for addressing future challenges.

 

Research partners

The EAUC is the alliance for sustainability leadership in education. It exists to lead and empower the post-16 education sector to make sustainability 'just good business'. With over 200 universities, colleges and learning and skills organisations as members, EAUC is leading the way in bringing sustainability to the business management and curriculum of institutions across the UK and Ireland, and further afield. This report was commissioned by the EAUC’s Future Business Council. The Council comprises executives from leading employers and universities with the aim of addressing the graduate sustainability skills gap. Change Agents UK is a charity and not-for-profit organisation who provide work placements in sustainability and deliver training and online learning to graduates and young people in a range of the topics including project management, presentation skills and communicating sustainability. Change Agents UK work with partner organisations across many sectors, providing help and resource with research and practical projects delivering change for a sustainable future.

 

Purpose of this scoping study

This scoping study aims to bring further understanding to the area of changing graduate requirements, graduate skills gaps, and sustainability skills. The results generated will be used by the research partners to make recommendations on actions for current students, employers, university and government. It will also inform the approach to training graduates at CAUK and the strategic approach taken by EAUC.

 

Structure

This scoping study was based on questionnaires and interviews with a range of key actors from different stakeholder groups: recent graduates, business leaders, and university leaders. This provided a wide scope of viewpoints, and the ability to compare ideas and insights into similar issues from different perspectives.

 

Results

  • There should be greater communication and collaboration between universities and businesses, in terms of module design, teaching real-world problems, and organising work placements and internships

  • While technical skills are important for certain specific roles, soft skills (such as communication, presentation, influencing behaviour change, analytical and critical thinking, and team working) are valuable in all areas of business, and should be taught in all degree courses.

  • The most effective way to impart new sustainability knowledge and skills would be to embed them within university course curricula. This would allow students to understand how sustainability relates to their sector/discipline rather than seeing it as a separate issue.

  • Both business leaders and graduates identified workplace skills as the main skills gap (e.g. negotiation, telephone skills, confidence working with superiors, and professionalism)

  • Business leaders consider volunteering, placements, and internships as valuable ways for students to improve and demonstrate their skillset, but graduates seemed less aware of the value of these extra-curricular activities for their future employment - The findings of this research (primarily the call for cross-sectoral cooperation and co-creation of course material) mirror those of research undertaken 15 years ago (Martin and Jucker 2005; Gumley 2006; Stieg 2006). The consistency of the message regarding the best ‘next steps’ for creating a curriculum for ESD indicates that, although research over the past decade may have increased our understanding of which specific competencies or skills are most desirable, or the state of those skills among different student populations, there remains a lack of significant, measurable action.

 

Recommendations by Audience

The recommendations from this study are organised by audience: Students, Businesses, Universities, and Government.

 

Students

  • Undertake extra-curricular activities during your time at university, and make a note of the projects this involves, the responsibilities you take on, and the skills you have learned, as this will be valuable when you come to apply for work.

  • Be proactive in seeking out opportunities for real-world work experience alongside academic study

 

Universities

  • All degree courses should involve at least 2 weeks (or 1 day per week for 1 semester) of work experience or a placement of some kind to enable students to develop real-world understanding of the professional or business workplace. This does not have to be in the sector related to their degree discipline, as the focus is on developing students’ experience of practical realities alongside academic theory.

  • All courses must equip students with the cross-cutting skills necessary for addressing sustainability challenges, such as critical thinking, lateral thinking, and systems thinking. Interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary learning and problem solving are valuable ways to get students out of their disciplinary silos and to start understanding the interconnectivity of systems.

  • Universities as businesses have a responsibility to provide their staff (both office staff and teaching staff) with training on sustainability. This includes sustainability theory, practical applications of sustainability to different sectors, how it relates to their discipline, and how sustainability can be incorporated into their modules and teaching material

 

Business

  • Businesses should be more proactive in contacting universities to offer work placement opportunities, guest lectures, and information on what exactly they are looking for in the graduates that they hire.

  • Businesses also have a responsibility to train their existing staff in the sustainability skills and knowledge that are becoming more important. For businesses to become sustainable, it is not enough to wait until current graduates with sustainability knowledge are in a position high enough to make significant change. Training on sustainability theory, and its application, should be made available for all staff. This will make the business more able to address the future challenges that emerge, both during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Government

  • In order to ensure that the changes recommended here are followed through, and to facilitate the process, the government must establish a body or commission that both enforces the necessary changes, and also facilitates and co-ordinates the process, through communication of best-practice approaches and provision of resources for universities. We support the call from Aldersgate Group for a National Skills Commission – it is crucial that this is a cross-cutting group, with representation from young people, education institutions, education sector bodies and organisations, business and Government.

  • There is a significant opportunity and need for these findings to be considered at all stages of education – whilst this study has concentrated on university education and graduate skills, this issue is universal. The Teach the Future campaign calls for education at all levels to reflect the severity of the climate crisis; we support this and we would like to see sustainability in its broadest forms being incorporated into learning across subjects and disciplines. Skills for the future will be needed by all young people entering the workforce and changes to the National Curriculum to upskill students will be required. Ofsted and QAA must take a proactive role in fulfilling these requirements.

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