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Class of 2012: Diploma dilemma for Europe grads

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 7, 2013 at 1:21 am •  Published: January 7, 2013
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"In social sciences, arts, I.T., there is an enormous transition in which you almost have to tell people to forget what they've been studying so that they can see again," said Robin Chater, secretary general of the Federation of European Employers.

Chater's organization represents multinational firms working in the EU, advising them on employment law and other matters, and also functions as a think tank focused on issues of concern to international businesses. Students' lack of practical experience in real-world situations is an emerging cause of concern for the organization's membership, Chater said.

That's an experience Lucy Nicholls, a member of AP's Class of 2012, knows well.

"I'm not saying universities should find you a job, but they should mentally prepare you for the big wide world and make you very much aware of what the climate is like..." said Nicholls, a 22-year-old fashion graduate in London. "It didn't happen for me."

Nicholls describes herself as "sorely disappointed" by her university education in Britain. "I expected to have some sort of lecture on maybe how to go freelance, how to go into the world of fashion because freelance is such a big part of that industry," Nicholls said.

The need to reform Europe's universities has been identified by both the EU Commission and independent experts.

Although graduate unemployment at 5.4 percent is significantly lower than overall youth unemployment, university curricula "are often slow to respond to changing needs in the wider economy," said Dennis Abbott, spokesman for the EU Education Commissioner. In an email response to questions, Abbott said courses should be better tailored to the needs of the labor market, better guidance should be given in selecting courses, and students should be given more opportunities to develop entrepreneurial and work-relevant skills as part of their studies.

That's precisely what Nicholls found lacking in her fashion studies. "I really just wasn't given any opportunities," she said. "I was very disappointed and I think the (university) could and should have done so much more."

Data from the EU Commission show the disparity that exists between the EU and the United States in terms of spending on university education, one factor that has been identified as a cause of European universities' underperformance.

Total public and private spending on higher education in the European Union accounts for 1.3 percent of GDP, compared to 3.3 percent in the United States, according to EU figures cited in a 2008 report by the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank. On a per student basis, that translates to annual spending of euros 8,700 in the EU versus euros 36,500 in the US, Bruegel says.

Borrell, the French law student, saw the effects of this underfunding while in Vienna.

Her law school library shut as early as 4 p.m. some days, and was closed completely on weekends. "You can imagine what this means when exams are approaching and all of a sudden libraries are just literally stuffed with people," Borrell said.

In its report, Breugel recommended that the EU spend an extra 1 percent of GDP annual on higher education, and give universities more autonomy in budgets, hiring and faculty pay as a way of giving the additional spending "more bite."

Moira Koffi, another member of the Class of 2012, last month finished her diploma in corporate communications from the Sorbonne journalism school. Her experience provides an optimistic tale of what Europe's universities may be doing right.

"I'm very satisfied" with how her school, CELSA, prepared her for finding post-graduation employment. "There were courses to prepare you for interviews, and networking was a very important" part of the curriculum, Koffi said.

In her case, it paid off: Koffi has just signed her first work contract with an important public relations firm, working on social media campaigns.

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Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

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