Business degrees remain top of students' wish lists

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Employer criticism that graduates lack business awareness - &quotsoft&quot skills such as interpersonal communication, team-working and even commonsense - is answered by academics pointing to changes in their courses as examples of the ways they are adapting.

117,361 students enrolled for degree courses in business studies in the latest academic year - 11.8%, or one in eight of the total number of students in the UK. This makes business by far the most popular degree course in the UK, with medical studies a poor second, attracting 72,756 students, 7.3% of the total.

Professor Andrew Lock, Chairman of the Association of Business Schools says: &quotE-business and the impact of developments in information and communication technologies on markets and firms are reflected in a changing curriculum.&quot

Modules are being introduced covering e-business, knowledge-management and e-commerce.

The need for soft-skilled, business aware graduates is highlighted in the Graduates in the Eyes of Employers report produced by Park Human Resources. 30% of employers reckoned graduates lacked business awareness, with 28% feeling they were missing interpersonal skills and 11% maintaining that graduate students lacked commonsense.

Peter Mann at Reuters says: &quotWe may be expecting too much, but I think the shift to semester-based courses where students spend time learning on their own, rather than with tutors continually criticising their work, leaves many poor at communication and lacking in maturity.

&quotWe will under-recruit rather than take graduates who appear to have applied for jobs for which they are totally unsuitable.&quot

Academics beg to differ. &quotIt is far too easy to accuse universities of failing to produce students with good business awareness,&quot says Professor Alan Gregory at the University of Exeter School of Business & Economics.

&quotThe problem needs to be tackled in partnership. We have introduced a series of seminars where senior consultants explain the specific needs of the financial services industry.

&quotFor example, senior consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers are addressing students on the impact of E-business for the capital markets industry and the new skills required to cope with this challenge. This allows lecturers to continually fine tune courses and sets up realistic expectations in students,&quot he says.

At the University of Glamorgan Business School, Haydn Blackey says they have developed closer links with employers than ever before. &quotCourses are being re-designed to incorporate soft skills, such as teamwork and presentation. Our students are ready for employment by the time they complete their degrees.&quot

Amanda Brook at the University of Bath School of Management says teamwork, action learning and practical business experience are key components of undergraduate degrees.

These give students a real, competitive edge in the employment market.

&quotMany students also take the opportunity to go on exchange to other European or North American business schools, developing the international management and cross cultural competencies that are important in today's global marketplace,&quot she says.

Professor Sandra Dawson, director of the Judge Institute of Management Studies at Cambridge University says students are offered employer-led skill sessions on commercial awareness, cross-cultural teamwork, communication, negotiation, time management, assertiveness and leadership.

&quotWe liaise with academic staff in departments on an ongoing basis with regard to the interaction between academic learning, the transferable skills this helps develop, and how best to give students access to additional learning opportunities to best prepare themselves for employment.&quot

At the University of Bradford Management Centre, its director, Professor Arthur Francis, says all students are required to do a 10-credit module centred around group business games that focus on soft skills, at least as much as analytic skills.