Comparative Perspectives from the 2015 Würzburg Winter School
Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer
Guidance and counselling in higher education: A comparison between the career services in Germany and Italy
As the number of career guidance services at European universities increased in recent years, this article focuses on their implementation from a pedagogical point of view. Therefore, we discuss how career guidance helps university students in Germany and Italy cope with the increasing demands of the employment market. The main aim of this contribution is to present, compare, and contrast several dimensions of the presence of career services at universities. To achieve this goal, the argumentation follows a four-step plan. First of all, the concept of career guidance, as it emerges from international literature, is defined. Second, national contributions are presented. Third, a comparison highlights similarities and differences that characterise the different national services. Finally, we outline one of the main challenges that Germany and Italy share regarding the future of their career services in higher education. The key contribution of this paper deals with the adoption of a comparative approach on a topic which can really impact on the creation of a European space of higher education and contribute to the redistribution of opportunity ‘to progress, in relation with the diverse need of life … following a double purpose of societal and personal development’ (UNESCO, 1970, p. 52).
In 2004, the OECD (2004) stated that there was ‘little of no career guidance available for many students in tertiary education’ (p. 20). As there furthermore is too little ‘trained personnel to meet tertiary students’ career development and guidance needs’ (p. 20), the OECD formulates a demand for career guidance for this group of students. (p. 20). Furthermore, according to the Lisbon strategy, the European Union is ‘to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ (European Parliament, 2000; see also CEDEFOP, 2009, p. 12). This means for individuals to acquire ‘completely new skills to cope with changing occupational profiles and skill requirements resulting from rapid technological and economic developments’ (CEDEFOP, 2009, p. 12). As education and training systems ‘are not very transparent for most individuals … ← 195 | 196 → policies and strategies for guidance and career counselling have become a political priority in Europe’ (CEDEFOP, 2009, p. 13).
Therefore this article focuses on the research question: How do career guidance services help students in Germany and Italy cope with the increasing demands of the employment market? Career guidance in this understanding has the aim to ‘enhance the employability of graduates’ (Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency 2015, p. 203). Therefore, ‘[c]areer guidance is regarded as particularly important for nontraditional learners, especially if it is provided throughout the whole student lifecycle’ (Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2015, p. 203).
In the following, we use the definition of career guidance that has been used by the OECD, the European Commission, and the World Bank (cf. OECD, 2004, p. 10; see also Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2015, p. 268). Career guidance here is being understood as referring to
services and activities intended to assist individuals, of any age and at any point throughout their lives, to make educational, training, and occupational choices and to manage their careers. Such services may be found in schools, universities and colleges, in training institutions, in public employment services, in the workplace, in the voluntary or community sector, and in the private sector. (OECD, 2004, p. 10)
In addition, the definition says that career guidance may happen ‘on an individual or group basis, and may be face-to-face or at a distance’ (OECD, 2004, p. 10). That definition shows that career guidance for university students is one part of career guidance and that guidance may come in different forms. Aside from providing information on careers, career guidance includes the following services:
assessment and self-assessment tools, counselling interviews, career education programmes (to help individuals develop their self awareness, opportunity awareness, and career management skills), taster programmes (to sample options before choosing them), work search programmes, and transition services. (OECD, 2004, p. 10)
Therefore, we would like to point out how career guidance has been implemented at German and Italian universities and in what educational way they support the students.
Guidance and Counselling by Career Services in Germany
Since the end of the 1990s, several career services have been implemented in Germany (Jörns, 2002, p. 9). Jörns (2002), following Michel (2001), describes structural change, academic reforms, and the skills shortage (p. 122) as the framework ← 196 | 197 → for the implementation of career services in Germany. Furthermore, Jörns (2002) adds the relevance of pilot projects (p. 122).
Regarding the employability of university graduates, career services are meant to be ‘a genuine duty of academia, in addition to seminars with practical relevance’ (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, 2011, p. 2). The German Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), or German Rectors’ Conference, defines career services as ‘institutions of higher education that serve as an interface between academia and the labour market’ (2011, p. 2, own translation). Their aim is it to strengthen the practice orientation of departments and faculties (p. 2). Therefore, it is the duty of career services to prepare students for the ‘transition towards employability’ (p. 2) and to enhance their ‘vocational orientation’ (p. 2; own translations). The HRK pointed out the following responsibilities of career services:
(1)information, guidance, and counselling (Beratung)
(2)connecting academia and the labour market
(3)contact management and mediation (HRK, 2011, pp. 3–4)
According to the HRK, support can be provided in different ways: single guidance and counselling or coaching, cooperative projects, mentoring tandems with alumni, workshops with ac-training, or application checks (HRK, 2011, p. 3).
In its paper on quality assurance, Career Service Netzwerk Deutschland (2009) defines ‘the preparation of future academics to manage their vocational biography in the context of the knowledge society’ (p. 6, own translation) as the goal of guidance and counselling. Guidance and counselling topics include: ‘vocational orientation, choosing an internship, reflecting on strengths and weaknesses, application and job entry, but also choosing a field of study, and deciding whether a master’s course, a doctoral thesis, or job entry would be the best choice’ (p. 6).
Therefore, career service staff should have an ‘appropriate qualification or training in the field of guidance/counselling’ (Career Service Network Deutschland, 2009, p. 6). Furthermore, supervision and advanced trainings are recommended (p. 6). This is to make sure that guidance and counselling services are confidential. The guidance and counselling approach being used should be made transparent to the client (ibid., p. 6). According to Career Service Network Deutschland, guidance/counselling services should be person-oriented, context-oriented, and solution-oriented. The outcome of the guidance/counselling process should be evaluated only in terms of how helpful it has been for the client, not for the career service or the counsellor (ibid., p. 7).
Guidance and counselling hereby appear to be one of the duties of career services in Germany. With aiming at the employability of the students, guidance ← 197 | 198 → and counselling shall equip the students with competences for the employment market.
To sum it up, employability seems to be the main aim of career services in Germany. By organisations as HRK and the Career Service Netzwerk Deutschland guidelines for counselling and guidance have been worked out. Guidance and counselling hereby shall enable the clients to increase their employability and to get aware on their chances and possibilities on the employment market. At the same time the Career Service Network Deutschland emphasises the relevance of the personal outcomes of the guidance and counselling for the student.
Guidance and Counselling by Career Services in Italy
Guidance and counselling services emerged as university services in the late 1990s (cf. CRUI, 1995). The context in which this phenomenon took place was linked to the higher education reform that involves European countries, but it was also characterised by national issues. From a national point of view, guidance and counselling in higher education are parts of a broad lifelong guidance strategy, ‘which guarantees the development and the support of individuals’ decision-making processes’ (Italian Ministry of Education, University, and Research, 2014, p. 2, own translation), providing information, training experiences, and counselling activities from the cradle to the grave.
In a broad perspective, guidance and counselling services in higher education are expected to:
- find strategies to reduce early university dropout,
- raise graduation rates of people in higher education
- facilitate the transition to work.
For obvious reasons, which include the need to reduce the costs arising from dropouts, the guidance and counselling system at Italian universities has been structured so as to be able to respond to various challenges. Primarily, they have to answer to the information, training, and counselling needs expressed by students transitioning from school to university. Secondarily, they have to facilitate the transition from one programme year to the next. Recently, under the pressure of community initiatives, professional practices designed to accompany students leaving the university have gained a central role contributing to the definition of specific career services (cf. ISFOL, 2011).
According to the latest report on the state of university and research in Italy, published by the National Agency for the Evaluation of University and Research (cf. ANVUR, 2013), the Italian system of higher education is highly fragmented ← 198 | 199 → and unproductive in terms of graduates employed within the first year after graduation. These two elements, particularly relevant since the financial crisis, have placed guidance and counselling at the centre of many reflections that fit into the broader debate on the employability of young people. On the international level, the concept of employability can be understood from two different perspectives. The first assumes ‘an employment-centred approach that focuses primarily on graduate employment rates’ (Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2014, p. 11). The second highlights ‘the competences relevant for the labour market that need to be acquired through higher education’ (ibid.). In Italy, the tension between these perspectives has not allowed university career services to refer to a solid and common framework, even if they work on an on-going basis at almost all Italian universities (cf. ADAPT, 2011).
Career services are being provided at diverse levels, mainly using an individual approach, although group and online activities are offered, too. As with other university services, the counselling staff is usually to small for the number of traditional and non-traditional students they serve (cf. ISFOL, 2011). The instrumental apparatus to support users to manage their vocational biography refers to a multiplicity of interventions, including work placements at companies, or skills assessments. The most common practices are generally aimed to supporting individuals in their exploration of the labour market and their active job search. Interventions related to the preparation of CVs and job interviews are offered alongside activities that focus on entrepreneurial education. This is often approached by directly involving companies in business presentations and workshops. Actions to stimulate self-employment through participation in specific programmes, support with spin-off processes, and incubator programmes are also common. Career services are also in charge of organising job fairs. They check students’ applications and other documents, such as motivation letters.
As mandated by law (cf. Italian Parliament, 2003, 2010) Italian universities have created databases with graduates’ curricula to better match labour supply and demand. Their function, however, is not limited to placement. Finally, Italian career services are devoting more and more energy to activities aimed at monitoring the quality of their interventions from the point of view of companies and students to find a balance between the need for improving graduate employment rates, upgrading students’ skills, and affirming the primacy of training activities over advisory/informative and counselling services (cf. Cammelli, 2014). ← 199 | 200 →
The brief overview on the ways in which career services help university students in Germany and Italy cope with the increasing demands of the employment market suggests that many differences and similarities can be identified.
From a general point of view, the main similarities refer to the temporal dimension of the implementation of career services in higher education and the implicit or explicit reference to the concept of employability. Concerning the first point, it is possible to say that the 1990s were a turning point in all the countries analysed. The Bologna process the associated national reforms were based on the assumption that it is a key responsibility of higher education to sustain ‘the ability of graduates to gain initial meaningful employment, or to become self-employed, to maintain employment, and to be able to move around within the labour market’ (Working Group on Employability, 2009, p. 5). Concerning the second point, we see that career services in Germany and Italy refer, implicitly or explicitly, to the concept of employability, in both its meanings. A recent publication recalls in fact how the adoption of a benchmark on graduate employability by the Council of the European Union in 2012 gave career services a prominent role in achieving this goal by fostering students’ competences (Education, Audiovisual, and Culture Executive Agency, 2014, p. 61).
Despite these similarities, a deeper analysis shows some differences related to the presence of frameworks or guidelines on quality standards and monitoring processes that ensure success to career services in higher education. Concerning this, it’s possible to observe that in Germany, universities have implemented a solid and common strategy of career services in response to the high demand for clarifying their tasks and procedures. Guidelines were created, especially through strategic cooperation of the HRK and Career Service Netzwerk Deutschland. In Italy, by contrast, the tension between an employment-centred and competence-centred approach to employability does not allow university career services to refer to a solid framework or specific guidelines. The only guidelines available are in fact the guidelines referred to in the implementation of a national lifelong guidance strategy (cf. Linee guida, 2014).
Focusing the analysis on some specific aspects, more subtle differences and similarities emerge. In Germany, career services see themselves as an interface between students and the labour market, working, above all, to increase the practical relevance of educational pathways, whereas in Italy, they assume this mission by reaffirming an educational role that helps them try to find a balance between their placement function and their advisory and counselling tradition. ← 200 | 201 →
Regarding the activities of the university career services in the countries analysed, it is clear that all of them consider it their duty to inform, guide, and counsel students in order to ease the transition from university to work, but Italy seems to put somewhat less emphasis on connecting students and companies. The German HRK, by contrast, defined contact management between students and labour market institutions as one of the main activities of German universities’ career services (HRK, 2011, pp. 3–4).
Nevertheless, measures to enhance students’ employability in the two countries seem include a quite solid and shared set of services. Newsletters, advisory and counselling interviews, projects and programmes for the development of specific competences, mentoring, workshops, CV and application checks, practical training, assessments, business presentations, job fairs, and placement activities, in various degrees, seem to be available for German and Italian students alike. Only entrepreneurial education can be considered a specific Italian service.
Concerning the definition of quality standards, Germany seems to have adopted the student perspective when defining quality criteria (e.g. confidentiality, transparency, and person-oriented, context-oriented, and solutions-oriented approaches), whereas Italy is still trying to identify a strategy to provide significant feedback to fulfil the expectations and needs of students, companies, and institutions alike.
What has been said in these paragraphs shows how Germany and Italy deal with the duty to equip students with all the required skills to manage their professional biography in the context of the knowledge society. This emphasis on students’ labour market success exposes university career services to heavy criticism. In this perspective, in fact, they seem to support an understanding of higher education as having the only role of producing employable graduates while underestimating a range of other individual and societal outputs. This criticism highlights one of the challenges shared by these European countries. The above-mentioned challenge concerns the reflexions on career guidance and counselling in higher education in order to find a model that approaches issues related to students’ employability both from a demand and a supply-side understanding of the labour market.
As a recent publication recalls, ‘employability plays a central role in the European Commission's higher education reform strategy (European Commission, 2011) as well as both in the Europe 2020 (European Commission, 2010) and the Education and Training 2020 ('ET 2020') strategies’ (Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2014, p. 61). However, this doesn’t mean that reflecting on what higher education institutions need to ← 201 | 202 → respond to labour market requirements blurs the reflection on what higher education institutions need to achieve in terms of output. Employment certainly does not depend exclusively on the quality of education that graduates have received, but also on many other factors that influence an individual’s employment prospects. Here, guidance and counselling can also have an impact.
In the context of the widening participation agenda, this means, first of all, to highlight the role of career services in the provision of (targeted) advice and career guidance to non-traditional learners throughout their student lifecycle (p. 65). As Thomas and Jones claim, ‘besides providing access to relevant work experience for students with non-traditional backgrounds, higher education institutions have a particular responsibility’ (2007, p. 23): to bring down the 'indirect' barriers non-traditional learners can face on the labour market. This goal is closely related to the possibility to 1) develop awareness about employability; 2) assess personal and professional strengths and weaknesses in different contexts, and 3) manage an appropriate job search and enhance application skills.
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