The Myth of The Great Equaliser: The Gap Between Higher Education and Industry

Going to college does not mean that you are entitled to, or prepared, for real life.

Renee Kapuku, Creative Digital Programmes Manager, Supa Network

University can be a kind of bubble. An almost inpenetrable force, shielding adults from the reality that lurks just on the outside of its foggy, domed walls. Whilst at university, many of us indulge in the pervasive narratives of success — after graduating, it was common to hear plans to start a long career as a lawyer after securing a mythical training contract, catapult to through the ranks of the elite at an investment bank, or take up the mantle of the elusive consultant at one of the big four.

Although the stories are shifting, with much more diversity in graduate destinations including postgraduate pursuits, we are currently facing an even greater issue beyond accepted graduate trajectories. There is a crisis which few are talking about on a wider, institutional basis — are graduates really prepared to go out into the ‘working world’?

The Woes of Post-Grad Life:

As a graduate myself from two of the top universities, I had assumed (in my first two years of undergrad) that the world was truly my oyster. I believed I would easily be find a job immediately upon graduating, with purpose, value, and a hefty compensation. The typical graduate dream. It was the least I could ask for after spending so much money on student loans over the years, right?

Unfortunately not.

Even though I had racketed up experience in different and exciting ways, as president of this society and vice president of that society, when it came to pulling in jobs I desired — I was shooting blanks. The range of entry-level jobs paradoxically required 3 years+ experience, the turnaround of hiring managers feedback was ranging over weeks and months, and the job descriptions were vague and indecipherable. It was actually my network which ended up being the most helpful in landing me the most rewarding job opportunities.

For those who are not as fortunate to have a thriving network, despite working so hard at university, their application will frustratingly fall on deaf ears. Particularly when institutional biases still plays such a role in determining who occupies space at the very top of these industries. I was disheartened after watching the BBC documentary How to Break into the Elite, which demonstrated the ways in which nepotism and network continues to threaten social mobility. Bright, talented and teachable graduates were being squeezed out by virtue of being working class, or from an ethnic minority background, simply because they did not have the opportunity to break into elite circles.

The Myth of the Great Equaliser:

Nowadays, going to university is not the only way to land a ‘prestigious’ role in a company. Some of the most influential organisations are scrapping degree requirements, including titans like Netflix, Google, and Apple. Researchers and commentators predict that this may become an industry norm in the next few years, and with the volatility of global economic, political and market structures, this may just be the case.

Where does that leave the brightest and yet most disadvantaged graduates who have only been exposed to outdated cultural naratives of success? How do we bridge the ever-increasing gap between Higher Education and working in industry? How do we hold organisations accountable in the face of nepotism, unconscious biases, and largely inefficient, outdated hiring processes?

A Collaborative Vision for Change:

Usually, much of the onus is on the individual to bridge the gap between their education and their first role. Join socieities, find interests which demonstrate your passion and all that malarkey. Whilst this is great, and definitely should continue, it is also necessary for both Higher Education institutions and Corporate entities to meet in the middle.

Universities need to continue rigorously overhauling their career services and platforms, ensuring that they have robust alumni networks and ongoing support for current students from first year to final year. Ironically, some of the best universities in the world known for their research-intensive environment preparing graduates for high-pressure workforces, still lag behind in connecting graduates with opportunities and skill-building sessions to facilitate a smoother transition. Universities must also make a concerted effort to engage with its student population, understand the career needs and narratives on campus, and find ways of tailoring their services to both meet and transform these needs.

Organisations, corporate entities and hiring managers must also commit to agility, efficiency and realistic expectations of progress. Although interested in hiring the best and the brightest, actually possessing and demonstrating knowledge of the university landscape will serve them better in crafting an entry-level role which speaks to both the strengths and weaknesses of potential hires.

We must enter a phase where we go beyond structured and formulaic recruitment protocols and begin to be open to tweaking where necessary to find the best fit for the role. Organisations also must be willing to engage with students and universities beyond cosmetic ways — it is more than arbitrary presentations during the hiring phase at universities, but collecting data and understanding cultural narratives which affecting new and prospective hires.

Agility is the Name of the Game:

If gaps are appearing between some of our most important institutions as a result of changing culture and climate, we must change with it, and adopt flexible solutions to new problems. If the ‘Great Equaliser’ that is education does not serve the needs of the people, then the onus is on us, on the individual, collective and institutional levels, to find way to serve the people once again.

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This article was originally written on Medium

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