The Well-Tempered Graduate and the power of work experience

The Well-Tempered Graduate and the power of work experience


Work experience increases short and long-term employability for students and seems to have a positive educational benefit¹. And yet there are more traditional one-year ‘sandwich’ courses on offer than students taking them in some sectors.

There is, however, a spontaneous market in firms taking undergraduates and postgraduates for short-term experiences: roughly 150,000 students claimed to have undertaken such a role, while business surveys report around 250,000².

Is this enough? Should we just let this market develop or are there policy challenges to be understood and faced, and changes to practice by firms and universities that might make this function better, more effectively and crucially, more fairly? There were over 2.2 million students attending UK universities in 2014/15³. How many would benefit from either mentoring schemes or work experience? And how would you deliver on that scale?

It has long been assumed that big companies are the home of placements, but our analysis shows that sixty percent are small firms who usually take on one student. The burden on universities to deliver to this population and on such a large student base using traditional means may simply be beyond their capacity to deliver. At the National Centre, supported by the CISCO Foundation, we are currently piloting a digital work experience platform called BrandU. Over the next year, we will work with universities and employers to see if we can together build a scaled-up national platform to deliver all kinds of experiences – a day, a week, a month, a year – without overburdening university administration, HR departments or small business owners.

We are also keen to see if we can bring some kind of fairness to a loosely organised space in which the role of networks and word-of-mouth connections still matters. This is fundamentally unfair to first generation students whose parents and guardians many not have such connections. Policy makers and universities have performed strongly in breaking down the barriers of entry into university, but there is work to be done alongside employers in breaking down such barriers within universities. Widening Participation (WP) must be a focus for a student throughout a student’s career.

Finally, and following my overall theme, employers have to think about the quality of the work experience on offer. In an upcoming National Centre for Universities and Business survey of employer work experience practices and processes, we show that businesses are alive to the WP challenge and to the increasing use of work experience as a recruitment tool. But this generation of undergraduates are raised on comparison sites and social media report-back, so the company is as much on trial as the student. If a scaled-up market develops, the better the placement, the more likely the student will be to take up a subsequent job offer.

Alongside these practical considerations I am concerned, personally, that the language with which we describe work experience is too reductive and prosaic for the complex business environment into which graduates are now sent. Take, for example, our old friend the ‘oven-ready’ graduate.

It may be that the earliest reference to the term is from a 1999 paper titled: Oven-ready and Self-basting: taking stock of employability skills⁴.The author claimed that because employers wanted to move the cost of employability training from themselves to universities:

The conclusion is that universities have to ensure that graduates can ‘hit the ground running’ or, to change the metaphor, are ‘oven-ready’ and preferably ‘self-basting’.

Somehow, this clearly ironic statement was widely taken up and became an acceptable means of describing the UK’s bright young graduate talent. For some, the metaphor is simply a way of saying that universities have a role in ensuring that graduates emerge from university ready for work. I struggle with the notion that a tasteless, intensively-farmed, dead, plucked, gutted, beheaded and declawed bird is an appropriate simile for highly-educated people.

The irony is compounded by the fact that the biggest survey of employer opinion comes from the United Kingdom Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). In a 2014 report, over eight out of ten employers said that their graduate recruits were well or very well prepared for work.


There is clearly a gap between these broad-based satisfaction scores and the persistent sense of unease amongst some employers, which cannot be discounted. But given the positive role of work experience, and the wide-spread willingness of businesses to offer it, let me propose an alternative to the dead bird, namely The Well-Tempered Graduate.

The Well-Tempered Graduate in an uncertain world

SoR-David-2Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was intended as a primer ‘for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning.’ Unfortunately, Bach did not leave a clear definition of well-tempered to posterity, but there is a simple point: The Well-Tempered Clavier is a series of glorious preludes and fugues meant, in part, as a training manual, in which all the twenty four keys were played and through which the student learns about harmony and polyphony. Rounding this out, the other meanings of ‘to temper’ come into play, namely to bring to the right condition by blending and mixing, hardening through heat, strengthening through experience, and toughening up.

So, is there a different values-driven approach that employers, policy-makers and universities might take to develop a harmonious system of work experience for 21st century turbulence?

One of the greatest graduate talent challenge for the first half of our century is to help educate people to respond to a chaotic, volatile, global world rather than the relatively stable and predictable certainties of the previous industrial period. Arguably, the 21st century began with the birth of the Netscape browser in November 1994. The digital holy trinity of browser, World Wide Web and Internet inspired a communications and jobs revolution. Without Netscape, the web and the net may well have become specialist tools for academics and researchers; with it and its successors, we entered a global revolution generating trillions of dollars of revenue and during which all things are in flux, just as they were during the early stages of the industrial revolution.

Digital platforms are like thin crusts of software sitting across tectonic plates of rapid technological advance. Each crashing together creates disruptive tsunamis swallowing up business models, skillsets, strategic cycles and long-term planning. Following the US military, some business writers call this a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous⁵.

For some, this means the best players will be those who can wing it most effectively and fearlessly. But, capitalism has always had VUCA DNA, it’s just the speed and the global scale that’s different. The Boston Consulting Group echoes most other consultancies when they note that VUCA-era businesses must become adaptive and learn better, faster, and more economically than their peers⁶. The consensus is that most leaders in these companies require more complex and adaptive thinking abilities. But the truth is that it’s much more than the leadership that needs the capacity to think fast whilst still applying sound judgement; the whole company has to be able to respond and the people who should be able to react most effectively should be new graduates raised in the maelstrom.

SoR-David-3There is already a cottage industry emerging on how to cope with VUCA (right).

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Bennett and Lemoine tackle the problem from a strategic planning perspective. Businesses face VUCA-world by investing heavily in information, data and analysts; they increase the number of specialists in the company, and overbuy talent to create slack to respond to challenges⁸.

Similarly, in a preliminary study conducted for the National Centre for Universities and Business, Michael Stevenson interviewed HR directors of eight global firms about how they are developing their VUCA-era leadership programmes and concluded that:

Taken together, these developments imply a new model of personal leadership at every level of the company, with an emphasis on empathy (the employee is above all an interlocutor between different parties and interests) and humility (you lead from the back and still they follow you), along with resilience, resourcefulness, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to fail and recover⁹.

I believe we can learn from the past about how to develop these capacities for the future.

The past is a familiar country

The original universities in Bologna and Paris were born useful. The coming together of fee-paying scholars and hired, licensed lecturers into a single legally-recognised community emerged out of a complex series of rapidly-changing social and economic forces. However, the idea of a higher education emerged from the deep Christian humanist roots of the 12th century renaissance, allied to the practical need to educate lawyers, doctors, and astrologers to service burgeoning towns, mercantile elites and centralising courts¹⁰. Moreover, canon law was vital to resolving major political disputes, and the study of theology was strongly linked to pastoral needs of a restless and uncertain age.

During the long 12th century (c1050-1250) universities spread rapidly across southern Europe and France and into England. These communities were unburdened by the separation of practice from theory and training from education. Their students had a grounding in the liberal arts – the preparatory work of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, followed by the more advanced quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. So every subject specialist was also a generalist with a broad-based intellectual development that today we would call interdisciplinary. Is this precisely the challenge for a new kind of humanism in higher education that integrates disciplines and practices to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow by doing the jobs of today?

The sheer grinding complexity of globalism and its associated uncertainties requires many graduates, particularly those who aspire to leadership and entrepreneurship, who are attuned to ambiguity, and trained for disorder. Our prosaic friend, ‘work experience’, is a direct conduit into that world, but students have to possess the intellectual capital to make sense of and absorb the experience. This is not a plea for a return to the classics, but a hard-eyed assessment of the attributes and characteristics of graduates who will help businesses to grow and innovate.

Humanism carries a double meaning: the original 15th century professional umanisti taught the studia humanitatis – secular literature deeply influenced by Greek and Roman and occasionally Arab ideas and texts. Over time, the subject of study became the object and humanism came to focus on the intrinsic value of people and their needs, values and capacities. And finally humanism became tied up in a dialogue about how to think without a God looking over your shoulder, and ‘humanist education’ became a catchword of progressives and a curse for conservatives. The new humanism I am sketching is centred on the development of undergraduates as real people in the real world solving real problems. The lessons to take from the birth of the university is the connectivity between individual development, theoretical advancement, and the practical application of a mental toolkit based on the integration of the arts with formal and natural sciences.

For a long time we have been talking about the importance of universities in developing communication skills, critical thinking, team playing, and motivation. The debate has ebbed and flowed as to how much employers should be involved in helping to shape the curriculum to develop these characteristics or indeed whether employers should be accountable for their acquisition through work-based learning and training. The modern battery of questionnaires and assessment centres certainly assumes that students who emerge into the job market with these capacities stands a better chance of landing a position and contributing quickly. But what are the right capabilities and aptitudes for our complex world? And how do students acquire them through work experience that liberates rather than stifles their potential? This is precisely where employers must up their game if they are to help develop The Well-Tempered Graduate.

Living the solution

In the fourth of his letters to a young poet, Rainer Maria Rilke said:

…what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer one distant day in the future¹¹.

There has always been a lively but to my mind a dead-end debate between craft and practice-based versus liberal education. Wilhelm von Humboldt, the 19th century pioneer liberal and founder of the University of Berlin, tried to shut Prussia’s military academies and vocational schools because they aimed at a final product – soldier, baker, candlestick-maker. Instead he favoured a traditional humanist education that prepared the whole person for life¹².

Similarly, Cardinal Newman writing later in the century engaged in a debate with utilitarians whom, he argued:

...insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured. They argue as if everything, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been a great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind¹³.

Newman believed in a Liberal Education that was:

…simply the cultivation of the intellect…and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence¹⁴.

SOR-David-4Newman’s idea of a university may not be ours, but he did leave what looks like a thoroughly modern list of attributes (right).

Newman and Von Humboldt would be undoubtedly horrified by the notion that work experience is a way of acquiring these characteristics; but anyone immersed in real-world business and public sector challenges would recognise immediately – as would the students and masters in 12th century Bologna – that engagement in the world of work is precisely a way of sharpening each of these attributes.

This matters hugely because at a very basic level, employers are now sifting applicants not only through the myriad application centre tools, but also on whether undergraduates have relevant life experiences outside of their courses.

Conclusions and reflections

The language of work-experience has been too workaday and too often tied to narrow metrics. The sandwich courses designed in the 1950s are, of course, valuable, but not enough students are sufficiently excited by them to take them up. If experience is to genuinely round out education to benefit businesses and students, it needs to be designed for The Well-Tempered Graduate, who will still be contributing to business, society, and the health of the UK long into this century.


⁴ Teaching in Higher Education volume 4, issue 2, 1999 pages 267-280.
⁵ Developing Exceptional Talent. The Education of Global Leaders.
⁷ Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World Bob Johansen.
⁹ Stevenson op cit p4.
¹⁰ The Twelfth-Century Renaissance R.N. Swanson Manchester University Press, 1999.
¹¹ Letters to a Young Poet (Penguin Classics) 2012 p18.
¹² Liberalism Edmund Fawcett Princeton University Press 2014 p36.



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