Links between higher education and working life

– a study of other countries’ initiatives

Growth Analysis has been commissioned by the Ministry of Education to conduct a survey of how other countries link higher education to working life. The study relates to Denmark, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and Singapore.

Challenges on the borderland between higher education and the labour market

In general, higher education in Sweden creates good prerequisites for students to get a job even if there are certain occupational categories where the future needs of the labour market are predicted to be greater than supply. There are also some areas of education, for example the humanities, political science and art, where it takes longer for graduates to find a job and where work tasks often differ from those they were trained to do. In addition, there are challenges relating to low economic return on higher education, poor matching, and adaptation to changing needs on the labour market (for instance, because of digitalisation). Moreover, there are challenges related to the fact that the number of students is increasing, there are more young students, and there are also more students who were not born in Sweden, and who thus have less experience of the Swedish labour market.

Research demonstrates positive effects

A survey of the research done in this field shows that the linking of higher education to working life has a number of positive effects, for instance, increased motivation to study, more likelihood of the study programme being completed in time, higher degree of establishment on the labour market, increased likelihood of getting skilled employment, and higher salary. There is some evidence that the effects of relating studies to working life are greatest in subject areas where there has been no tradition of cooperation with working life. Some of the most common outcome measures show that early career guidance and substantial projects/internships have positive effects while “superficial” interaction between students and working life tends to be of less importance. The linking of higher education to working life may therefore help to meet several of the challenges mentioned above.

The government can create prerequisites and incentives

In several of the countries studied, the distribution of the number of students at universities and institutes of higher education and vocational colleges is a factor that affects links between higher education and working life. In several of the countries, the distribution of students among the different types of educational institutions is considerably more even than it is in Sweden. It is believed this reduces the problem of matching since the vocatio­nal colleges are more focused on meeting the recruitment needs of the labour market.

Another aspect that affects incentives for links to working life is how the government subsidises higher education. In both the UK and Canada, where study fees have been increased in recent years, interest in employability has increased among students and parents which has in turn put pressure on the educational institutions to develop links between study programmes and working life. In Denmark, new rules have been introduced so that student aid is granted on the basis of a standardised study time which means the students now focus more on working life early on in their studies.

Another aspect that influences the educational institutions’ interest in integrating study programmes with working life is the extent to which quality assessment and remuneration from the government are linked to the students´ establishment on the labour market. For example, in the UK, employability and cooperation with employers are two parameters that are taken into account in evaluations. In Singapore, the universities are evaluated with regard to how fast new graduates enter the labour market. Denmark is probably going to introduce a similar system within a few years which has already resulted in the universities taking more initiatives to link study programmes to working life.

In a number of countries, the government is also creating economic incentives for trade and industry to become more involved in the linking of higher education to working life. One example is the province of Ontario in Canada where employers are given up to SEK 20,000 in tax relief if they offer a 12-16 week work placement. Another example is the Centres for Innovative Craftsmanship in the Netherlands where the government finances 50 percent of public-private partnerships between vocational colleges and regional trade and industry so as to improve matching. Economic incentives in particular can create an interest among small and medium-sized companies.

Increased professionalisation and a growing toolbox for the educational institutions

Several of the universities studied are professionalising links to working life. One way of strengthening links to working life at educational institutions is to involve representatives from working life in the groups that design and plan the study programmes. One example is the National University of Singapore where trade and industry have representatives on the university board and in the groups that develop the curricula. In Denmark and the Netherlands, universities often have external advisory boards with representatives from trade and industry, in the same way as certain Swedish educational institutions. Their role is to provide information about changes on the labour market and what skills and qualities the students need to acquire.

This review of the countries reveals a number of innovative methods for integrating working life into study programmes. One relatively well-known example is the “co-op study programmes” that are run in close collaboration with trade and industry, for example, at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Several of the educational institutions that were investigated also try to strengthen their links to working life by involving their alumni, for instance, through guest lectures and mentorship programmes. The report also reveals a number of interesting apprenticeship programmes.

In Singapore, Canada and the UK, initiatives are being taken at different levels to strengthen the students’ personal and interpersonal development. Activities of this kind are obligatory at certain universities. Efforts are also being made to make the students’ “soft knowledge” more explicit, which has proven to be of significance, not least for students who are studying general programmes since that can give them a better picture of what they are really able to do. In addition, in several places, trade and industry want to promote the students’ creative and entrepreneurial thinking and their cooperative and communica­tive abilities.

Initiatives to improve lifelong learning

The survey also shows that the link between higher education and working life increasing­ly includes lifelong learning. In Singapore, for example, a Skills Future programme has been introduced which among other things includes a national competence account. This perspective also implies that the linking of higher education to working life has to commence before young people start higher education. For example, in the Netherlands, the government has set the target that 4 out of 10 pupils at compulsory school are to have a degree in technology by 2020.

Links between higher education and working life – a study of other countries’ initiatives

Serial number: Direct response 2016:11

Reference number: 2016/005


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