How do we enable the employability of university graduates?
In the higher education press, over recent months and years, there has been a lot of comment about employability. Some of this has been prompted by the measurement of universities, with one metric being the number of graduates in graduate level jobs or further study 15 months after graduation. The focus on employability has also been prompted by the desire to attract bright young students to university, and the need to explain how this will enhance their future careers. Whatever the reason, there is certainly an ever-increasing focus on employability.
Employability is easily confused with employment, and separating out the difference between the two is crucial to understanding the ‘employability debate’. A lot of focus in measuring universities is on employment – the number of students in graduate level employment. However, employability is different to this and means equipping students with the skills and attributes which will enable them to be successful throughout their careers.
Employability does matter, and there is a huge amount of innovative and good practice happening in universities across the world. Based on a desire to learn from good practice in delivering great graduate outcomes, we became increasingly interested in the diversity of activity across universities in the UK and further afield, and this has resulted in a co-edited book about employability which was published last month. The book has contributions from over 60 authors from around the world.
It is difficult to extract key messages from such a varied group of authors, but on reflection we would bring out three messages:
- Employability has to be embedded in the curriculum
If employability initiatives are on offer for students, it is important that all students engage with them, so that employability does not become a dividing feature between students with time to engage and students who perhaps have to focus on part-time work or caring responsibilities. If employability is credit bearing and embedded in the curriculum, all students will engage with it because they have no choice.
It can be embedded as a credit-bearing module specifically focusing on employability, which is what the team at the University of Derby have done in their BA Accounting and Finance degree. Here the assessment was particularly important, because it required students to prepare materials, such as a CV and a video ‘selfie’, that they might need when applying for jobs.
It could also be embedding business projects, designed with employers, into a degree as colleagues at the University of Liverpool have done in a final year module in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. Here the assessment includes input from employers who designed the projects to add realism to the experience.
- Equity is as important as equality
In higher education we are well-versed in equality of opportunity, but we are less well versed in equity. If we take the analogy of running a race, equity means ensuring that everyone is starting the race at the same time – and if we come back to the world of higher education, we know that students are not all starting the race to get a job from the same starting point.
Widening participation initiatives need to help disadvantaged students get to the same point as their more advantaged peers who might, for example, have had the opportunity of parental support to get work experience or have been able to engage in unpaid internships due to financial support from parents.
Work at the University of Exeter has focused on under-represented groups, using activities with Lego to help engage students and enable them to express the barriers to employability that they might face. One key outcome of this work was the identification of the lack of knowledge of the graduate recruitment process as a particular challenge.
The University of Southampton introduced a career coaching programme specifically for students who are the first in their family to go to university. They found that the career coaching increased the self-confidence, engagement and career readiness of the students involved.
- The challenges relating to employability are the same across the world
In Australia, universities have used a range of co-curricular strategies to support the development of employability skills including Employability Awards, mentoring programs in university incubators, leadership programs and more recently, the use of a range of micro credentials.
At the University of Canterbury in New Zealand there is also a focus on Work-integrated Learning (WIL), which is closely linked to community engagement (one of the graduate attributes identified by the university) such as the creation of the Student Volunteer Army in response to the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.
This necessity to use multiple approaches to enhance employability skills runs through countries across the world.
Developing a university graduate with sound employability skills is a challenge for all universities. The challenges are not unique, but the ways of addressing those challenges are certainly varied as is demonstrated by the experiences of the authors in this book.
Most importantly, the book seeks to enable institutions to learn from one another and to continue to innovate and develop their practice with the view to provide the best possible graduate outcomes or career change opportunities for their students.
Professor Kathy Daniels, PFHEA, FCIPD, FCMI Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (Engagement) at Aston Business School and Saskia Loer Hansen, PFHEA Deputy Vice Chancellor, International and Engagement at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia
How to Enable the Employability of University Graduates
can be found here.