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Quality in higher
Quality in higher education: education
linking graduates’ competencies
and employers’ needs
Anne Martensen and Lars Grønholdt
Department of Marketing, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to focus on measuring competencies of higher education
graduates and employers’ needs, and using these measurements in the quality development of higher
education study programmes.
Design/methodology/approach – Results of a survey among Danish employers and their
perception of the competencies of MSc graduates from Copenhagen Business School (CBS) are
presented and discussed. In addition to assessing the competencies, the respondents were also asked to
assess the importance of the individual competencies.
Findings – The estimated importance score and performance score for each competency can be
combined in a competency map, and it is shown how the four cells in the map can be interpreted in
useful ways, when essential areas for quality improvement of the study programme are to be
Research limitations/implications – This study is limited to the Danish employers’ perceptions
of MSc graduates from CBS.
Practical implications – The presented linking of competencies to employers’ needs have clear
managerial implications in the strategic development of higher education study programmes.
Originality/value – The study identifies and measures 16 essential graduate competencies and links
these to employers’ needs in a competency map.
Keywords Higher education, Quality, Graduates, Competences, Employers, Denmark
Paper type Research paper

Recently, employers demand that competencies achieved by higher education
graduates during their education match the company’s competency needs. In other
words, the study programmes at higher education institutions should be developed to
optimally stimulate graduates’ abilities to perform in the labour market.
There is a need for “global graduates”, which is very pronounced in a country such
as Denmark. This need is emphasised in a survey carried out by the Confederation of
Danish Industries among 100 of its member companies; the survey showed that
companies were looking for “employees with language and intercultural competencies
and a technological understanding, capable of cooperating in global company
environments”. On this background, the Confederation of Danish Industries (2002, p. 7)
recommended that educators incorporate a stronger global perspective and content
into their courses. International Journal of Quality and
The Association of Presidents of Danish Higher Education Institutions (2004, p. 7) Service Sciences
Vol. 1 No. 1, 2009
also emphasises the importance of this and points out that it is natural that Danish pp. 67-77
higher education institutions should educate labour for the Danish market, but as the q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
market is increasingly being globalised, there is a need for graduates with DOI 10.1108/17566690910945877
IJQSS international-orientated competencies. As the Confederation of Danish Industries
1,1 (2002, p. 10) highlights, there is a tendency towards:
[. . .] meta-national companies with global business processes, where the company, regardless
of the number of subsidiaries, is characterised by a company culture and organisation that
does not consider country borders.

68 The Confederation of Danish Industries’ (2002, p. 3) survey also shows that there is a
great need for “graduates within economics and business administration to practice
their practical competencies more, that is, their ability to transfer theoretical knowledge
to concrete action in the company” as well as for the graduates to be “capable of learning,
managing and distributing knowledge within networks in the surrounding world”.
These new competency needs require innovation and product development in study
programmes, so that new study programmes and learning types can be developed and
existing study programmes continuously improved.
Higher education institutions are faced with a growing international education
market that is increasingly being commercialised. Higher education institutions should
offer educations of high quality that can measure up to the best international
educations. This is a great challenge since the national institutions believe that their
offered teaching and research should be so unique that students and researchers are
willing to travel far to be inspired by these environments.
Higher education institutions are also facing increasing demands from stakeholders
such as politicians, the government, partners, local society and others. The
stakeholders demand that the universities of today “supply relevant services for
resources (value for money), supply more relevant services for additional resources
(more value for more money), and are effective, productive and responsible” (statement
by Hans Peter Jensen, the President of Technical University of Denmark, at a Nordic
conference about “universities in a changing world”).
All of these new challenges, which the higher education institutions have been
facing in recent years, make it particularly interesting to study employers’ assessment
of the graduates’ competencies in actual practice.
Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to discuss which initiatives should be put
into effect in order to create a better coordination between graduates’ educational
competencies and the demands and needs of the labour market. In this way a win-win
situation for both parties is created.
Firstly, the business industry can recruit graduates with competencies and
knowledge of a high level, which they can benefit from quickly, thus achieving a high
rate of profitability in short time.
Secondly, the graduates will have less difficulty in finding their first job and will
more easily be integrated in the labour market.
Thirdly, higher education institutions will in the end improve their reputation,
which will make them more attractive to new students, employees, employers, and
other stakeholders. A good reputation among employers will result in the higher
education institution being positively distinguished from the other higher education
institutions or knowledge institutions. This can lead to employers having increased
confidence in and respect for the higher education institution and its study
programmes; and in them ultimately choosing to recruit graduates from this institution
rather than from others.
More specifically, the purpose of this paper is to answer the following research Quality in higher
questions: education
RQ1. What are the competencies of an MSc graduate from Copenhagen Business
School (CBS)?
RQ2 Which competencies does the business industry demand when employing an
MSc graduate and to what extend do CBS graduates live up to these 69
competency needs?
RQ3. What is the contribution of the CBS graduates to the companies?
The two first points are thus a question of correspondence between the employers’
expectations to the graduates’ competencies and the actual experienced competencies.
In other words, the question is if the educations are applicable in practice.
In this paper, we use the study programme MSc in Economics and Business
Administration at the CBS, Denmark as our example. As CBS is used as case, we will
briefly present the institution as follows.

About Copenhagen Business School

CBS ( has more than 15,000 students and an annual intake of around 1,000
exchange students. With this number of students as well as around 400 full time
researchers and around 600 administrative employees, CBS is one of the three largest
business schools in Northern Europe.
CBS offers a range of study programmes, including 14 Bachelor programmes, 15
master programmes, 11 executive master programmes and PhD programmes. In
addition, CBS runs a series of study programmes through Open University as well as an
International Summer University programme. CBS offers Denmark’s most
comprehensive range of university degrees in economics and business administration
and modern business languages.
In the empirical study in the following sections, we focus on one of the master
programmes, namely the MSc in economics and business administration. This
programme is CBS’ largest study programme offering 14 different specialisations in
2008, nine of which are taught in English.

The survey
A survey was conducted during the spring of 2006 among Danish employers. The data
include approximately 250 internet interviews with employers, whereof approximately
150 have knowledge of the CBS MSc programme and the MSc graduates from CBS.
A questionnaire was designed consisting of 52 questions measuring CBS’ reputation.
The questionnaire was also supplemented with approximately 40 questions,
examining the employers’ assessment of the competencies of MSc graduates from
CBS. It is these questions that provide the foundation of the results of this paper. Most
of the questions were formulated as statements to which the respondent was asked to
rate her/his level of agreement on a five-point scale (from “not at all important” to
“extremely important” or from “poor” to “excellent”).
IJQSS Measuring competencies
1,1 We examined the competencies of the graduates from an employer’s point of view, and
made use of a survey conducted by the Confederation of Danish Industries (Anderskouv
and Mikkelsen, 2004). In 2004, employee relations managers of the Confederation’s
member companies were asked about the cooperation between companies and higher
education institutions, including among other things the competency needs and supply
70 for business graduates. The survey comprised 199 responses. The competencies may be
divided into two categories with eight competencies grouped under each category:
(1) Professional competencies:
in-depth knowledge of the field;
wide scope within the field;
language skills;
IT skills;
communicative skills;
business knowledge;
application of theoretical knowledge; and
ability to create results.
(2) Personal and social competencies:
cooperative skills;
motivation to learn/try new things;
intercultural understanding through specific course themes;
results orientation; and
management skills.

These competencies are identified for business graduates, and other types of graduates
may naturally have other and specific competencies. The character of many of the
mentioned competencies is however so generic that they could also apply for higher
education graduates from other study programmes.
Industrial Relations Services (IRS, 2003) has studied competencies in graduate
recruitment and selection, and analysed 367 competencies from 38 competency
frameworks. This extensive analysis has identified 51 different competencies, and even
though it is based on many competencies from many competency frameworks with
some varieties, “there is a reasonable amount of consensus about recruiters’ priorities”
(IRS, 2003, p. 45). Table I shows – in descending order – the 32 competencies that are
most commonly used in graduate recruitment. The competencies shown in italic letters
are among those, we include in our study. An interesting fact is here that we use seven
of the top-eight competencies in Table I.
Quality in higher
1 Communication
2 Results orientation education
3 Teamwork
4 Analysis
5 Business acumen
6 Motivation
7 Problem-solving 71
8 Flexibility
9 Persuasiveness
10 Interpersonal skills
11 Customer focus
12 Decision-making
13 Leadership
14 Management skills
15 Relevant technical skills
16 Resilience
17 Creativity
18 Learning orientation
19 Self-confidence
20 Initiative
21 Planning
22 Relationship building
23 Change orientation
24 Quality focus
25 Integrity
26 Self-management
27 Continuous improvement
28 Developing others
29 Intellectual ability
30 Foreign languages
31 IT skills
32 Diversity
Table I.
Note: The competencies, which figure in the specific study, are marked with italics The most commonly used
Source: IRS (2003, p. 45) competencies

CBS graduates’ competencies

Table II illustrates the employers’ perception of CBS graduates’ competencies, divided
on, respectively, professional and personal/social competencies. The performance of
the competencies is measured on a 0-100 scale (from “poor” to “excellent”), transformed
from the original five-point scale.
The results show that the business industry is extremely content with the personal
and social competencies of the MSc graduates, especially the motivation to learn/try
new things, commitment and cooperative skills are emphasised as some of the
competencies that the graduates possess to a high extend.
However, the business industry assesses the “management skills” as relatively poor
– MSc graduates do only to some extent possess these competencies according to the
companies. It can be discussed if it is at all realistic that an MSc graduate possesses
such competencies at that time. Management skills are often developed in the course of
time in practice. The “natural leader” is still a rare thing. A fact that is confirmed in a
major survey among graduates and employers (Aalborg University and
Graduates’ Graduates’
1,1 Professional competencies performance Personal competencies performance

In-depth knowledge of the 67 Flexibility 71

Broad scope of knowledge 69 Commitment 76
72 of the field
Language skills 65 Cooperative skills 74
IT skills 65 Adaptability 72
Communicating skills 67 Motivation to learn/try new 77
Table II. Business knowledge 64 Intercultural understanding 66
CBS graduates’ Application of theoretical 66 Results orientation 71
performance on knowledge
competencies Ability to create results 65 Management skills 57

Roskilde University, 2002, p. 55) where those graduates with a desire to become
managers were asked which competencies they lack in order to discharge an executive
position. Here, three out of four mention seniority/experience, thus making it the most
frequently mentioned factor “needed” in order to discharge an executive position.
This survey also shows that when asked: “which functions does your current job
comprise?” only 4-11 per cent of the graduates mention management/organisation.
The survey moreover shows that personal and social competencies are the imperative
factor in order for the graduates to qualify for an executive position, whereas the
education itself comes in second. Only a few have distinctly taken post-qualifying
education in order to qualify for an executive position:
So even though management education is not a direct part of the MSc programmes of the
universities, the graduates achieve many competencies during their education that qualifies
for holding a managerial position (Aalborg University and Roskilde University, 2002, p. 54).
In our survey the business industry does not to an equal extend assess that CBS
graduates possess professional and interprofessional qualifications, especially
business knowledge, ability to create results, IT skills and language skills. However,
the business industry is content with CBS graduates’ broad scope of knowledge.

CBS graduates’ competencies versus importance

In addition to assessing CBS graduates’ competencies, the respondents were also asked
to assess the importance they ascribe to the mentioned competencies when employing
an MSc graduate. Combining the importance score ascribed to each competence with
the matching performance index (Table I) results in a competence map as shown in
Figure 1. Such a data presentation is appealing from a managerial viewpoint and
useful in assessing the MSc educations’ strength and strategy development.
Each competence may be placed in one of the four cells in the map. The lines
separating the respective cells are based on the average important scores and
performance indexes, respectively. The four cells can be interpreted in managerially
useful ways (Rust et al., 1996, pp. 265-7; Johnson, 1998, p. 23; Johnson and Gustafsson,
2000, pp. 12-14, 142-5; Christopher et al., 2002, pp. 70-3).
80 Quality in higher
Motivation to learn education
Cooperative skills
Flexibility Results orientation
Broad scope of knowledge
70 73

In-depth knowledge
Intercultural skills
understanding Application of Ability to create
Language theoretical results
skills Business

competencies Figure 1.
Performance versus
50 importance: competence
50 60 70 80 90 100

In the upper-left cell performance is high and importance is low. At best, this suggests
maintaining the status quo. In some cases, there may be an opportunity to
communicate to the employers that these competencies are relevant and important to
the graduates when employing them in the companies.
In the upper-right cell performance as well as importance is high. These
competencies represent strengths, and therefore the CBS should continue the good
The lower-left cell represents competencies where CBS is not doing particularly
well, but it does not matter since employers do not regard these competencies as
important either. It is best to ignore these competencies for the moment – at least they
should have very low priority.
The lower-right cell represents the competence of the greatest opportunity. This
competence is important but CBS is not doing well, and should therefore concentrate its
effort here and try to improve this competence.
As it appears from Figure 1, the business industry attaches great importance to
personal and social competencies such as commitment, cooperative skills and
adaptability but also the more general qualifications in business economics such as
ability to create results and overall business knowledge are highly appreciated.
The fact that the business industry attaches great value to personal and social
competencies might be seen as a reflection of “more and more complex work tasks and
that professional content develops fast and therefore makes general academic
competencies” such as motivation to learn/try new things, commitment, professional
adaptability and flexibility “just as important as purely professional competencies”
(Aalborg University and Roskilde University, 2002, p. 7).
Since many of the professional elements in the educations thus outdates relatively
quickly, it is important that the graduates undergo post-qualifying education on a
IJQSS continuing basis throughout their career (Aalborg University and Roskilde University,
1,1 2002, p. 9).
It is interesting to compare the business industry’s perception of which competencies
it is important to have as a graduate and how they believe CBS fulfils these demands
with CBS’ MSc students’ perception of the same situations. Where does a potential
mismatch between the acquired and the demanded competencies exist? Such a gap in
74 perceptions may indicate if the educations are positioned incorrectly and thereby also if
there is a need for communication or if it to a larger extend is necessary to adjust the
competencies to the demands of the business industry. Such a comparison is possible, as
CBS has conducted an evaluation survey among 164 MSc students in June 2005.
In general, the students assess their performance level as being more poorly than
the business industry does – in other words, the business industry has a more positive
attitude towards the graduates’ competencies than the students themselves!
More specifically, the students believe that the educations provide them with good
cooperative skills, adaptability and a high degree of flexibility but that these are
competencies, which only to a very small extent are appreciated by the business
industry. This perception is a sharp contrast to the priorities of the business industry.
The ability to participate and be involved as an individual and at the same time be
capable of cooperating with others is seen as a forte of the current graduates by the
business industry.
The students find the professional qualifications very essential and they also
believe that the educations provide them with a strong foundation on this point.
Especially, the use of theoretic knowledge, broad scope and in-depth knowledge,
business knowledge and ability to create results are emphasised. But these are the very
areas within which the business industry believes that today’s graduates are weak and
should be stronger in the future. Thus, there are many indications that CBS – and
maybe in a broader sense the universities – should start a dialogue with the business
industry where particularly the professional skills such as ability to create results and
business knowledge are placed on the agenda.
Communication – that is the ability to communicate with others – almost matches
exactly between the two parties. Both parties experience communication as a weakness
in the current educations. The ability to communicate with other people, including
people with no special knowledge within the field of interest, should therefore be a
future goal, which CBS should seek to achieve through improved efforts.
All in all, we can conclude that the business industry advertises for improved
professional competencies of a more general commercial character; particularly the
following areas should be strengthened:
ability to create results;
business knowledge;
communicating skills (ability to communicate with other people); and
application of theoretical knowledge.

This recommendation is also applicable when focusing on:

recruitment managers in the companies;
respondents with some or extensive knowledge of CBS MSc graduates; and
companies expecting to have an unchanged or increasing need for MSc Quality in higher
graduates within the next five years. education
An additional breakdown of the results shows that the graduates’ personal and social
competencies such as commitment, cooperative skills, flexibility, motivation to
learn/try new things and results orientation are decisive partly in relation to them
getting a job interview at all and partly in relation to the job interview itself. 75
The professional competencies such as broad scope and in-depth knowledge are of
course, also important but they are more likely to be perceived as a prerequisite. From
the job application the employers can very quickly assess if the professional ballast is
in place.
During the interview it is particularly the personal and social competencies as well
as communication, business knowledge and the ability to create results that are
decisive for the applicant getting the job – the graduate’s professional competencies in
form of professional width and depth knowledge were a prerequisite for being selected
for an interview at all.
In the before-mentioned survey (Aalborg University and Roskilde University, 2002,
p. 5), 90 per cent of the graduates mention that a combination of the right professional
competencies and the right personal and social competencies was decisive for
achieving their first job.

CBS graduates’ contribution to the companies

The purpose of conducting business is to create good economic results – to create
results on the bottom line. Therefore, to the companies it is a matter of recruiting
talented and competent graduates who quickly can be useful for the companies and
who in different ways can contribute to the performance and profitability of the
company. Figure 2 shows the employers’ assessment of how CBS graduates contributes
to their company in five specific areas.




70 70



new methods and
Contributes with

Contributes with

Contributes with

Contributes with

Contributes with
Contributes with

new approaches

Figure 2.
new forms of
new theories


to solutions

new energy

CBS graduates’

contribution to the

IJQSS The graduates’ primary strength is that they bring new energy to the companies. This
1,1 new energy is generally a statement that can comprise both the professional as well as
the personal/social competencies. Recruiting a new and inexperienced employee is thus
in itself an “asset” to the companies.
Secondly, the graduates contribute with new methods and tools as well as new
approaches to solutions. Here, it is thus mainly the graduates’ professional competencies
76 that come into play – competencies of a very specific and practically oriented character.
The professional and more theoretic competencies are not appreciated to the same
extend. The business industry demand graduates who are able to:
think strategically, using analytical skills to transform these to concrete actions
analyse complex problems, i.e. by using different qualitative as well as
quantitative analytical tools and decision support systems;
apply information and knowledge to support decisions; and
. achieve quantitative skills, including an emphasis on being able to integrate
qualitative and quantitative approaches.

It is interesting that the business industry only to a small extend believes that the
personal/social competence “new forms of cooperation” contributes to the company.

This research may enhance the mutual understanding between the business industry
and CBS – and in a broader perspective the universities – enabling decisions in
relation to the many new changes and challenges in higher education to be made on a
as well-documented foundation as possible, so it can be beneficial to both the students
and their future work places. Furthermore, the survey may contribute to the ongoing
evaluation of the content of educations, among other things in regards to quality
development and innovation of the study programmes.
On a number of areas, this research provides a foundation for important and
constructive discussions on the aim of educations as well as the whole discussion on
matching educations with the needs of the business industry.

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About the authors

Anne Martensen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Marketing, CBS, Denmark. She
holds an MSc in Economics and Business Administration and a PhD in Marketing from CBS. Her
research interests include measuring and managing customer relations, customer satisfaction
and loyalty, performance measurement and management, and quality management.
Lars Grønholdt is a Professor at the Department of Marketing, CBS, Denmark. He holds an
MSc in Economics and Business Administration and a PhD in Marketing from Copenhagen
Business School. His research interests include quantitative marketing, marketing
communications, and business performance measurement and management. Lars Grønholdt is
the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

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