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The flexible professional in the knowledge society new demands on higher education in Europe

Final Report Summary - REFLEX (The flexible professional in the knowledge society new demands on higher education in Europe)

The REFLEX project aimed to make a contribution to assessing the demands that the modern knowledge society places on higher education graduates, and the degree to which higher education institutions in Europe are up to the task of equipping graduates with the competencies needed to meet these demands. The project also looked at how the demands, and graduates' ability to realise them, is influenced by the way in which work is organised in firms and organisations. The REFLEX project has been carried out in sixteen different countries: Austria, Belgium-Flanders, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The report focused on the remaining 13 countries. The major part of the project consisted of a large scale survey held among some 70 000 graduates from higher education in these countries. In each country, a representative sample has been drawn of graduates from ISCED 5A programmes who got their degree in the academic year 1999 / 2000. The various types of higher education in the participating countries have for the purposes of this report been divided into two main levels. First level programmes are those that do not provide direct access to doctorate programmes, while second level programmes are those that do provide such direct access to a doctorate.

Higher education in most European countries is characterised by a certain degree of internal differentiation. Around the turn of the millennium, when most REFLEX respondents left higher education, several countries had a binary higher education system, for example the Fachhochschule in the German-speaking countries or the HBO colleges in the Netherlands. In other countries, such as France, there was even more differentiation, with strong differences in prestige separating elite and mass programmes. Because it is essential to take into account differences in level of higher education, but not practical to report detailed results for each type in each country, in this report a broad distinction is drawn between those higher education programmes that provide direct access to a PhD - referred to as second level programmes, e.g. university Master level programmes - and those programmes that do not provide direct access to PhD - referred to as first level programmes, e.g. Bachelor programmes, programmes offered by Fachhochschulen. To prevent certain countries from dominating the mean results across all countries, all descriptive analyses presented in this report are weighted to 2 000 cases for each country. The weighting coefficient used also corrects for over- or underrepresentation of certain levels or fields of higher education compared to population figures. Multivariate analyses use unweighted data, whereby a random sample of no more than 2 000 cases per country has been drawn.

The overall impression is that graduates from the European higher education systems fare well on the labour market. Although only a small proportion of graduates end up in an elite position, the majority assumes a role in jobs that require a generalist or specialist training in higher education. Moreover, there have been some good indications that the produced human capital is used on the labour market. The unemployment rate is rather low, and most graduates indicate that their knowledge and skills are sufficiently used. That being said, there is still some room for improvement as more than one out of four working graduates indicate that their competences are insufficiently used. Moreover, there are countries and fields of study where graduates find it more difficult to find a good position. Apart from the 'usual suspects' (humanities, Southern-European countries), the United Kingdom stands out as a country where graduates find it difficult to find a job that matches their education. Although the unemployment rate of the United Kingdom graduates is average, their share of holding a lower level job or a job in which they cannot fully utilise their knowledge and skills is much higher than in most of the other countries. This might have to do with the weaker link between higher education programs and specific areas of employment in the United Kingdom compared to for example the German-speaking countries.

Having a high level of professional expertise is related with positive labour market outcomes, especially with earnings and the utilisation of skills. This underlines the importance of professional expertise for higher education graduates. A basic rationale for higher education is to impart professional expertise, and given the relatively low percentage of graduates indicating that this is a strong point of their study program, there is reason to develop this further. The second core competence that is related with labour market success is mobilisation of human resources. Having a high level of competence is related with employment chances (which is incidentally the best way to mobilise one's own competences), the utilisation of skills in the job and the earnings. Functional flexibility on the other hand is negatively related with most outcomes. It seems that competences related to this area are not directly rewarded on the labour market and merely seem to play a role in protecting graduates when coping with flexibility rather than being rewarded in them.

It is clear that following a demanding program is good for developing competences, but not necessarily leads to a strong position on the labour market. Following a program with which employers are familiar mainly has a strong effect on the allocation, but only a weak effect on the development of professional expertise and no effect on the development of competences in the other areas. This means that these programs do not necessarily produce better graduates, but they are by far the best in supporting them to find a good job on the labour market. The effect of following academically prestigious programs is related to both functions: they produce better graduates, but they also serve as a signal to future employers, thus helping to have a smooth transition and enter elite positions. Vocational oriented programs are good in developing professional expertise and are very strong in providing a good basis to enter the labour market and develop the career (specifically in the mass specialist positions).

Some modes of teaching seem only relevant for personal development and the development of entrepreneurial skills: this applies to group assignments, participation in research and oral presentations. Finally, the research found some negative effects of using multiple choice exams as a dominant way of assessing students. New methods may work, but old methods should not be forgotten. There is a tendency in education to think that knowledge in itself is not important anymore, as technological developments seem to render knowledge and skills obsolete soon after graduates have left higher education. However, theories, facts and practical knowledge are essential components to develop expertise in any area, and it is this professional expertise that is most clearly associated with labour market success.

Time spent on relevant work experience has a positive effect on the competence development and all labour market outcomes. However, time spent on non-relevant work experience has no effect at all, except from increasing the chance to find a job. It is clear that from a macro point of view spending time on non-relevant work should be discouraged. It distracts students from paying attention to their study and has no benefit at all in the long run. Of course, from an individual point of view, this may be different if non-relevant work is used to pay for the costs of living while being a student. The policy implication is that student loans should be such that students can pay enough time to their study. Doing voluntary work also has a positive effect: it has a strong effect on the development of competences in all areas, and also affects the allocation to certain positions and is associated with some wage premium. Experience abroad has a positive effect on the earnings. Having followed an internship or work placement has some effect on providing a good basis for entering the labour market, but does in itself not affect the development of competences. This seems to indicate that its role is mainly in providing a smooth allocation to jobs, rather than to develop professional expertise.

Gender and age have some effect on the labour market outcomes, females more often entering mass specialist positions and earning lower wages, while age has a positive effect on entering elite generalist positions and the earnings. There was no indication of an effect of parental background, once we control for other characteristics. This means that the graduate's social background exercises its influence mainly indirect by entering higher education in the first place and by choosing particular fields of study, level of degrees or academically prestigious programs. Having a good social network seems to protect graduates from falling down to lower level jobs.

Having a high relative grade has a pronounced effect on helping people to get into the better jobs, and serves as a clear signal to future employers. Surprisingly, indicators of study behaviour (like working hard and study hours) hardly affect these outcomes or sometimes even have an adverse effect. This is in line with the effects found earlier on following a demanding program. Although working hard is probably one of the best ways to develop your competences, there is no direct reward on the labour market. Not working hard is rewarded, but signalling this in the form of grades is rewarded.

Several conclusions and policy implications were identified which were thought to be relevant to one or more of following stakeholders: the European commission, national governments, employers, higher education institutions and students.
The mainly policy conclusions for the European Commission were:
- International graduate surveys offer important insights into the changing European higher education systems: they should be repeated at five-year intervals.
- Although higher education is increasingly internationally oriented, this does not keep pace with the even more rapid trend toward globalisation. The European Union should do more to foster international exchange in higher education and to strengthen foreign languages proficiency.
The mainly policy conclusions for national governments were:
- Strengthen both the academic and vocational orientations in higher education. Both have a distinct value in preparing for the labour market.
- Encourage relevant rather than non-relevant work experience during higher education.
- External flexibility is not always bad. National policy should focus on promoting a smooth transition between jobs, and on encouraging graduates to choose temporary employment above unemployment.

The mainly policy conclusions for employers were:
- Employers should be aware of the large reserves of underutilised human capital at their disposal.
- Employers should develop better policies to accommodate the feminisation of the graduate labour market, that is, to attract and retain women, also in top positions.
- Employers should look for more direct signals of graduate quality, and rely less on traditional signals such as prestige of the programme.

The main policy conclusions for higher education institutions were:
- study programs should be more demanding;
- study programs should focus on strengthening professional expertise;
- student-centred methods may work, but don't ignore the value of knowledge;
- assessment drives learning as well; written assignments and oral presentations should be preferred above multiple choice exams;
- give credits for relevant work experience;
- don't overestimate the positive effect of internships and work placements.

The mainly policy conclusions for students were:
- Follow your interest and talent.
- Acquire relevant experience outside higher education.
- A good network is highly relevant; take time to develop yours.