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Study finds gap in university students', faculty's appraisal of skills gleaned in class

Students navigate the new student centre at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., on Feb. 13. A new study published by the Conference Board of Canada finds disparities between student’s perceptions of the value of their educations in the humanities, relative to the expectations of their instructors.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

University professors and students have a gap in their perception of the skills and abilities students are gaining in the classroom and closing that divide could be key to better preparing graduates for the labour market, a new Conference Board of Canada study has found.

The report, released Thursday, surveyed a panel of faculty, students and career counselling staff at Canadian colleges and universities on their views of the links between academic courses and employer needs and demands.

Among the most acute gaps between professors and students are differences about the extent to which a university degree teaches creativity, verbal communication skills and adaptability.

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Ninety per cent of professors, for example, believe that undergraduates are learning to be proficient verbal communicators, an opinion held by 42 per cent of students. Similarly, only a third of undergraduates feel their academic work is preparing them to be creative, but almost four-fifths of professors think students are graduating with enhanced creative skills. The two groups are more likely to agree that a university education develops time management, civic-mindedness and social integrity.

If students do not understand how their education is teaching them "soft skills," they cannot convey that information to potential employers, one of the authors of the study said.

"Faculty in the humanities and social sciences are teaching the skills that graduates need … but historically, they've been doing it much more implicitly," said Matthew McKean, the associate director of education for the Conference Board of Canada. "What we are suggesting is that it should be made much more explicit in everything from the course outlines, to the in-class or online teaching experience," he said.

Many professors also appear to not be aware of how difficult students find the labour market. Only a third of faculty and career counsellors think competition for jobs is particularly challenging, compared with four-fifths of students who cite competition as a major source of stress. At the same time, half of professors are aware of their limitations, saying they are not well equipped to offer career advice.

"What can we logically or reasonably ask of faculty and what do we need to layer into the programming?" Dr. McKean asked. "Maybe it's too much to ask to make their curriculum more explicit," he said.

One area where students and their instructors agree is in their opinion of employers, with about half of students and university staff and faculty agreeing that companies do not value or understand social sciences and humanities graduates.

Workshops targeted to professors on how to help students develop their careers, and co-op experiences for which students receive academic credit would help make the connections between work skills and the classroom more clear. Work-integrated learning also gives employers a chance to hire an arts graduate at minimal risk, the report says.

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Humanities students who participate in these initiatives tend to see higher starting salaries after graduation and have lower unemployment rates, according to the report.

"Over time, humanities and social science grads have strong, stable careers and earnings but there is that transition piece in between finishing school and getting into full-time employment. The [co-op or experiential experience] is about thinking explicitly about how to articulate the skills you have to future employers," Dr. McKean said.

Prior studies of the employment outcomes of graduates from the social sciences and humanities have found that while they have higher employment rates than those with only a high-school diploma, they are also more likely to find themselves in jobs for which they are overqualified. Other research that has tracked graduates' long-term careers has discovered that humanities and social science grads have lower salaries than those in engineering or computer science, but have fewer career stops and starts.

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