Are universities failing to prepare IT graduates for work?

16 Dec 2020

Every year, thousands of people go to university to give themselves the best chance of getting a good job. Many students think they are setting themselves up for a successful career, but are they? To put it another way, are universities failing to prepare IT graduates for work?

In this article, I’m going to explore if IT students are getting what they need for a successful career after their studies?

Unis say they care about employability

Universities put a lot of emphasis on the employability rate of their students. Generally speaking, those with good employment rates for graduates make a point of it on their websites. Here are some examples from top universities in England and the USA:

  • University of Bristol: Our graduate employment record is one of the best in the UK; we are rated ninth in the UK in the QS Graduate Employability Ranking 2020, and are the fourth most-targeted university by TheTimes Top 100 UK graduate employers (High Fliers Research, 2020).
  • George Washington University: According to a recent survey, nearly 87% of the class of 2018 reported that, within six months of graduation, they were employed, pursuing a graduate degree, volunteering or are otherwise engaged in a gap year, military service or other activity

The universities want to ensure their students graduate with the skills employers expect. Given this, what are employers looking for?

What skills do employers want graduates to have?

Not every job is the same. Of course, some jobs require specific skill sets that are meaningless for other roles. For example, a marketing job is unlikely to need mechanical engineering skills. Even so, there are common skills that employers expect all applicants to have.

One of the most common skills that employers say they care about is communication.

Firstly, over the past decade communication skills have increased in priority. It has moved from an unimportant position at the bottom of the job description up to the required and essential skills.

Secondly, communication is regularly cited as being the most common skill or competency listed in job descriptions. For example, Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, made this claim multiple times in the news and is repeated many times on countless blogs.

So with that in mind, and with such an emphasis on this skill, are graduates leaving university properly prepared?

Are universities preparing students for work?

Unfortunately, the evidence points to a skill gap for graduates entering the workforce.

The 2019 QS Global Skills Gap report listed problem-solving, resilience and communication as the widest skill gaps facing employers. Furthermore, these are the same top three skills gaps as the previous year’s report.

In addition to the QS study, a study by Bloomberg in 2018 found the same result (read this interesting analysis).

How does this impact IT/tech students?

When it comes to teaching soft skills, it is the IT and tech students who are missing out. Surprisingly, this is because their degree programs do not include communication as a taught skill.

A review of computer science degrees from top UK universities shows less than 1% of the modules included communication skills.

Course name # modules available # comms modules
Computer Science (BSc) 25 0
Computer Science/Software Engineering (MEng) 37 0
Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science (BSc) 25 0
Computer Science (BSc) 37 0
Computer Science (MEng) 60 0
Computer Science with Innovation (MEng) 66 0
Computer Science (BA) 40 0
Computer Science (MCompSci) 56 0
Computer Science 50 0
Computing (BEng) 45 1
Computing (MEng) 70 1
Computing (MEng, Software Engineering) 73 1
Computing (MEng, Management & Finance) 70 1
Total 654 4

In some cases, there are elective (voluntary) modules that include communication. Students are also free to develop skills outside their formal academic studies. But is this really the best approach? Should it be the responsibility of students to educate themselves on the skills employers expect?


Given these points, are universities failing to prepare IT graduates for work?

Firstly, universities care about preparing students for employment. This is because it is good for the student and it is good for the university. The publication of stats to show the employability of their graduates further supports this. fact

Secondly, despite universities’ interest in employability, employers say there is a skill gap. This is especially true for soft skills such as communication. These are key skills that all graduates need but don’t seem to have.

Finally, IT students especially seem to be at a disadvantage. This is because their formal education does not include communication skill training.

Is the lack of communication tuition at university causing the skills gap? In other words, should academic institutions do more to prepare students to communicate at work? Or is this something employers need to address in training their graduate employees?

What is clear, for now at least, is that the students must find ways to close the skill gap themselves.