We need to talk about university performance

By Caroline Depierre 11 Aug 2021 Opinion
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As Times Higher Education reported this summer (see article here), the 10th-anniversary edition of the Global Employability University Ranking by Emerging released last month shows that Covid has accelerated the shift in the global higher education order. The presence this year of 8 institutions from the MENA region in the ranking, whilst there were none in 2010 when it started, is one of many indicators of this trend. What makes up a top university or a highly-skilled graduate has radically changed within the past decade. Traditional areas of excellence are shifting, allowing emerging challengers to compete with established top-ranking players. New factors of competition, especially employability, are key to making an impact today.

Having worked for years with diverse industries and universities, I know how challenging the path from education to employment is. One of the key questions being: what are universities for ? This is one of the most crucial debates of our times, as I truly believe that improving education can make the world a better place. While there are different views and approaches of university purpose - from the holistic, Humboldtian model to the vocational one -, there is a consensus on the fact that one of the key roles of universities is to give (young) people the ability to deal with today’s and tomorrow’s challenges in their professional lives.

Turning data into action

Universities across all continents are racing to embrace digital transformation. They want to stay competitive and drive growth and innovation by putting employability at their strategy’s heart. It is no surprise that the countries and universities that give a strong focus on digital skills like Israel or Sweden, or have a more vocational system like Germany or South Korea, tend to do very well in the Global Employability University Ranking. But digital transformation brings many challenges, particularly around data management and performance measurement. Universities are typically drowning in data that fails to deliver insights and values that help them make the right decisions and improve their employability performance.

In my former role as a Research Director in an international Employer Branding agency, exploring and understanding the requirements of our customers’ markets - graduates and young professionals - was my main point of focus. With my teams, I developed analysis concepts and collected millions of data points to determine market segments, key drivers and performance indicators, and created effective brand measurement models for leading employers. We helped them monitor their brand performance and sustainably improve their market position and recruitment funnels.

To shift the paradigm to employment and improve their employability performance, universities need to adopt a similar approach. This starts with collecting data to understand the digital workplace requirements and the different layers and drivers of graduate employability. But while data is a valuable asset, the main challenge lies in leveraging insights to make data-informed decisions. Turning data into action requires expertise in at least 3 key competencies:

  1. Bringing together the most critical data points
  2. Linking them to key performance indicators
  3. Creating a shared data understanding across the entire organization

Measuring employability performance

We all want to be high performers. In the digital context, performance is often associated with technical performance, i.e., the amount of useful work accomplished by a system compared to the time and resources used, or with marketing performance, i.e., the campaign output compared against the set objectives. Following the business rule “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, most professionals tend to focus more on metrics and ROI, less on defining the targets or objectives that should be measured against.

I am convinced that data-informed decisions are key to any impactful action. Action plans should be based on observations, sound facts and accurate data, and paired with a data-based performance monitoring model. But in a transformational context, “managing” performance seems like doing the second step before the first one. Creating value starts with understanding the context you are acting in and empathizing with the people you are creating value for. To bring together the most critical data points and link them to key performance indicators, universities need to review their stakeholder policy and adopt a “users first” strategy. This requires a huge change in traditional organizational and leadership principles.

When asked by the employability specialist Emerging whether their company should invest more in internal qualification programs or in university partnerships, around half of the managers chose the first option. As universities are not yet able to fulfill their employability needs, employers have started to develop their own training models and therefore forcing traditional higher education models to evolve. There are many stakeholders in higher education, but when it comes to employability, employers are critical partners. Innovative industry-university cooperation will help bridge the gap between education and employment and move towards a new higher education model.