We’re coming the end of the university exam period, a sigh of relief and a nervous wait for most. Yet with the ink barely dry we’re already seeing the annual ‘exams are getting easier’ headlines – this time though, with hard facts. When Tony Blair entered office in 1997 he did it with a pledge to see half of all school leavers go on to university.  Today 49% do. More interestingly though, between 1997 and 2009 the proportion of firsts awarded to university graduates almost doubled. Thinktank Reform now reports that since 2010 that number rose again by 26%. Three quarters of all students in the UK now go on to achieve one of the top two degree classifications. With global accountancy firm EY, one of the UK’s top graduate employers saying it will no longer consider degree results when assessing employees, there are widespread calls for change in how grades are awarded to protect the ‘value’ of a degree.

Adding weight to that argument is what The New York Academy of Sciences called the STEM Paradox – namely that there’s more graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths than ever before, but a growing difficulty in filling available job openings. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reports that 69% of British businesses are concerned about the availability of skilled staff, compared with 55% last year. This lack of available talent is also impacting business productivity, with output per hour worked in the UK 18% below the average for the G7 group of industrial nations, a big cost to businesses.

Looking to the future, this demand for talent will only increase as automation begins to have an impact on the need for lower skilled labour. In turn this will increase the need for higher skilled staff to manage new processes, some that potentially haven’t even been invented yet.

With the average UK graduate spending £27,000 on their degree (and that’s excluding maintenance costs) current students entering the system are demanding better value and closer business integration. The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) reports that 92% of students want to see work placements and internships as part of their university experience. Today, only 47% currently have access to them. Universities are acting. Here in Leeds, the new £38m Nexus enterprise centre funded by the University will be “a place where businesses looking to innovate, be more productive, and grow can access the University’s capabilities and talent”.

However, with businesses increasingly under pressure from investors to demonstrate how productive, efficient and futureproof they are, there’s a growing focus on cultivating an internal ‘culture’ that attracts and retains talent. Consequently, ‘Human Capital Reporting’ (the reporting of how a business develops the skills of its workforce and how this contributes to growth) has risen by 76% since 2013.

To get ahead of the game, leading blue-chips like BAE Systems and Nestlé are setting up formal working partnerships with universities to enrich and prepare their graduate intake. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. In the drive for greater productivity, efficiency and future readiness, it’s now commercially imperative for businesses to engage their current workforces and the employees of tomorrow…and then tell the world about it. We predict we’ll be seeing a lot more businesses promoting their internal culture through their brand strategy in the coming months and years.