Does Higher Education Still Prepare Young People For Employment?

Career Education team helps students navigate career opportunities and develop career goals while supporting employers. PICTURE: Supplied

More and more students are spending more money on higher education, and their main goal is largely pragmatic: to boost their employability and be valuable contributors to the economy, writes CECIL LWANA

We often hear employers and business leaders lament the unfortunate gap between what new graduates have learned at university and what they are actually expected to know in order to do their jobs well. This is particularly alarming in light of the large and still growing number of unemployed youth.

While education is free for students in South Africa, it is not cheap, there is a clear premium on education. The returns of investments are very lucrative for those who choose the right kinds of skills for the future. However, the value added by a university degree decreases as the number of graduates increases.

At the same time, as university qualifications become more common, recruiters and employers will increasingly demand them, regardless of whether they are actually required for a specific job. So, while tertiary degrees may still lead to higher-paying jobs, the same employers handing out these jobs are hurting themselves and young people by limiting their candidate pool to university graduates. In an age of ubiquitous disruption and unpredictable job evolution, it is hard to argue that the knowledge acquisition historically associated with a university degree is still relevant.

There are several data-driven arguments that question the actual, rather than the perceived, value of a university degree. A number of studies have long-established that the correlation between education level and job performance is weak. In fact, the research shows that intelligence scores are a much better indicator of job potential.

If we were to pick between a candidate with a university degree and a candidate with a higher intelligence score, we could expect the latter to outperform the former in most jobs, particularly when those jobs require constant thinking and learning. Academic marks are indicative of how much candidates have studied, but their performance on an intelligence test reflects their actual ability to learn, reason, and think logically.

University degrees are also confounded with social class, while many universities in South Africa do select students on meritocratic grounds, even merit-based selection is conflated with variables that decrease the diversity of admitted applicants. Affluent families with more money can afford to pay for better schools, tutors, extracurriculars, and other privileges that increase their child’s likelihood of accessing an elite higher education. This, in turn, affects the entire trajectory of that child’s future, including their future career prospects providing a clear advantage to some and a clear disadvantage to others.

Having said that, universities could substantially increase the value of their graduates if they spent more time teaching their students’ critical soft skills. Recruiters and employers are unlikely to be impressed by candidates unless they can demonstrate a certain degree of people-skills. This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between what universities and employers look for in applicants. While employers want candidates with higher levels of EQ, resilience, empathy, and integrity, which are rarely taught at universities.

As the impact of Artificial Intelligence and disruptive technology grows, candidates who can perform tasks that machines cannot are becoming more valuable and that underscores the growing importance of soft skills, which are hard for machines to emulate.

In short, I believe that the job market calls for a paradigm change. More and more students are spending more money on higher education, and their main goal is largely pragmatic: to boost their employability and be valuable contributors to the economy.

Even if the value attached to a university degree is beneficial to those who obtain it, companies can help change the narrative by putting less weight on “higher education” as a measure of intellectual competence and job potential, and instead, approach hiring with more open-mindedness.

Lwana is a healthcare practitioner, specialising as a Physiotherapist. This article first appeared in the News24