International alumni: the missing piece of the puzzle
The national Career Monitoring Survey is an annual national survey sent out to alumni who have graduated from a Finnish university of applied sciences (UAS) five years ago. It has so far been conducted twice (the third is ongoing at the time of writing this article) and includes alumni from both Bachelor and Master levels. However, the survey is only sent to alumni whose contact details the UASs possess and the survey is only answered by the recipients who choose to do so. This vastly reduces the amount of respondents, which was only 33% of all alumni nationally who graduated 2018 and 35% in 2019 (Helmi & Lauronen, 2020). Another issue is that in 2019 94% of the respondents had Finnish nationality, of which 1.5% had another mother tongue than Finnish or Swedish (Lauronen & Saarinen, 2020). This means, that we do not have accurate data for the international alumni who either did not receive the survey or chose not to respond. This leaves a significant knowledge gap nationally for how international alumni have perceived the quality of their Finnish education and their employment after graduation. As Finland has several internationalisation policies from national to municipal and institutional level, it would be extremely valuable to be able to access more data on international alumni from Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs).
Combining available data to paint the whole picture
The UAS Graduand Feedback Questionnaire (AVOP) is another national survey sent out annually to evaluate the students’ perceptions of the quality of their education, including its relevance for their future careers. It is sent to all students who are about to graduate from a Finnish UAS. Some institutions have made it compulsory and many do their best to encourage their graduating students to fill it out. Therefore, the response rate is very high nationally in contrast with the Career Monitoring Survey. This also means that there is rich data available also regarding international students. Additionally, some Finnish HEIs have participated in the commercial iGraduate’s International Student Barometer (ISB) either annually or sporadically. The barometer is exclusively sent out to current international degree and exchange students, providing valuable insights to these particular student groups. It also provides benchmarking data both nationally, at European level and globally. In 2017 The Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) analysed the data from participating HEIs at a national level. Unfortunately, only two UASs participated (Arcada and HAMK) and so the national data does not accurately reflect UASs students’ perceptions due to this underrepresentation compared to research universities.
AVOP has been criticised for appearing too late in the game, i.e. when the students are already about to graduate and thus can no longer affect their own studies. The ISB surveys current students at all years of the study programmes, but is aimed only at international students. iGraduate does offer a similar tool for surveying national graduates, but mostly Finnish UAS rely on their own particular feedback systems for current students and there is a lack of national-level data. Having national quality assurance systems for student feedback from early studies, to graduation (AVOP) and 5 years after (Career Monitoring Survey), would provide a more holistic view of the perceived quality of the student journey in Finnish UASs. By simply combining data from both national surveys as well as with the ISB data available, we would not only have longitudinal data, but we would also have a better understanding of our international students’ perceptions.
Filling the data gap while showing the value we place on feedback
As I am responsible for analysing Arcada’s data from all three surveys mentioned above, I saw this gap already in 2018 and decided to fill it on my own. I was in charge of the International Orientation Day for new students (about 90) at our Bachelor’s degree programmes in English and decided to ask these students 1) what they wanted to accomplish while at Arcada, except for a degree; 2) which skills and competences they were hoping to develop during their forthcoming years at Arcada, except strictly discipline-specific skills; and 3) what they thought they could do themselves to develop them. I did the same in 2019, and in 2020 I was invited to talk to all new students (about 500) at our Bachelor’s degree programmes about the future of education and work, and the importance of global competences. This opportunity provided me with data from over 400 students who chose to share their thoughts on the above-mentioned questions. The aspirations of our new students during the first week of their studies correspond very well with the information provided by our students about to graduate (AVOP) and our alumni of five years (Career Monitoring Survey). The latter two provide us with insights as to how well we meet these expectations.
I used this opportunity to report back to our students and show that we take feedback seriously by presenting the Career Monitoring Survey results for the question: “What kind of professional and field-related competence would you encourage current students to obtain to prepare them for future working life?” which in Arcada’s case were soft skills such as e.g. stress management skills, networking skills, multicultural skills and communication skills. This corresponds well with what the new students had told me they wished for in the beginning of the session. I also showed them data on employability skills, i.e. skills and competences employers are looking for (The Future of Jobs, 2016), as they too correspond very well with both our alumni’s recommendations and the new students’ expectations. Put together, this data makes a compelling case for enabling the development of soft skills and global competences for all our students. It is also made the case compelling for HEIs, as the national funding scheme places emphasis on these skills in the Career Monitoring Survey by connecting funding to 6 particular competences, out of which 5 are soft skills.
Soft skills are considered important, but UASs are underperforming in this area
The skills and competencies connected to the funding of Finnish UASs through the Career Monitoring Survey are: Problem solving skills, Initiative and self-direction, Development skills, Entrepreneurship skills and Ability to learn and adopt new things. The survey question is two-fold and formulated as: “How important are the following knowledge and skills in your current job?” and “How did your UAS studies develop these skills?” Is it the latter that is connected to the funding, but the former is also very interesting information on the actual need for these skills in the respondents’ current jobs. Curiously, even at a national level it is the soft skills that are perceived to be the most important in the respondents’ current jobs, while they feel that their UAS studies did not develop these skills very well. And although entrepreneurship skills are considered important in the funding scheme, the respondents overall did not find this skill particularly important in their current jobs or very well developed in their studies. The former can at least partly be explained by a large amount of respondents being employed at a company. Nationally, only 3% of the respondents who graduated in 2013 and 4% in 2014 currently work as independent entrepreneurs (vipunen.fi Employment situation 5 years after graduation). However, as we almost completely lack data on international alumni and their careers as well as their satisfaction with their UAS degrees, we cannot know if we are teaching them the right things or if they get return on investment in their studies at Finnish HEIs.
The national student and alumni satisfaction surveys provide excellent learning opportunities for evaluating the respondents’ perceptions of the quality of Finnish higher education and services with regards to employability, career development and entrepreneurship, but there are improvements to be made in the collection and analysis of data:
- There is a lack of representation of and thus valuable data regarding international alumni’s perceived satisfaction with their UAS studies and the studies’ relevance for work life and career, due to the low amount of international respondents in the Career Monitoring Survey.
- There might be value in having access to longitudinal national data from earlier stages of the student journey than graduation, which would require a third survey or a coherent feedback system for all HEIs.
- Soft skills are highly valued by employers, are connected to the national funding scheme for Finnish HEIs and are by the alumni respondents perceived to be the most important in the respondents’ current jobs. However, they feel that their UAS studies did not develop these skills that well.
- Although entrepreneurship skills are considered important in the funding scheme, the respondents overall (both AVOP and Career Monitoring Survey) did not find these skills particularly important in their current jobs or very well developed in their studies.
Other important aspects are the dissemination of results and taking actions towards development within the HEIs as well as in cooperation with the government, municipalities, employers and entrepreneurs. In order for us to future proof our higher education as well as all our students and graduates, we need to know what we should do, how we should do it and most importantly – why we should do it.
Sandra Slotte, M.Sc.Ed., Head of Sustainable Career Support, Arcada University of Applied Sciences, sandra.slotte(at)arcada.fi
Helmi, S. & Lauronen, T. 2020. AMKista Uralle. Uraseurantatiedot käyttöön. Esitysmateriaali Tulosseminaari 11.3.2020.
Lauronen, T. & Saarinen, S. 2020. Ulkomaalaisten ja ulkomaalaistaustaisten AMK-alumnien työllistyminen Suomeen. Esitysmateriaali PedaForum 21.8.2020.
The Future of Jobs. Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. January 2016. Global Challenge Insight Report. World Economic Forum
Image 1: Mentimeter results from Global Competences session with 110 Business Management and Analystics Bachelor’s degree students 29.8.2020.
Image 2: www.vipunen.fi UAS career monitoring: Equivalence of Competence and work. National results. Graduation year 2014. www.vipunen.fi retrieved 4.9.2020