With data on graduate salary and progression to professional employment looming large in government and regulator thinking on course quality and value, it might be taken as read that universities are adopting a conveyor-belt approach to employability in the hope of maximising their performance in metrics.
But the briefest dip into strategic thinking on preparing students for the world beyond university in all types of institutions reveals that’s simply not the case.
Instead universities are thinking carefully about the next stage of the road for developing their students – mindful of the complexities and challenges of the world that students will graduate into; a world which demands of graduates, not only a well-honed and evidenced skill set, but sufficient critical reflexivity to match their aspirations to their strengths and capabilities, and the tools to put their skills into practice in digitally enabled workplaces.
Embedding skills development in curricula
One clear trend is from employability and professional skills development being overseen by a central careers service, and sitting separately from the academic curriculum, to something that is actively embedded across learning and teaching.
For some universities this is hardly a radical proposition. At the University of Lincoln, for example, working with employers and professional bodies is already woven throughout curricula. “Employability should be inherent in everything we do,” says Liz Mossop, deputy vice chancellor for student development and engagement at Lincoln. “Disciplines and programmes should be working with industry and constantly refining curricula according to the needs of their sector – while still ensuring graduates come out with a broad enough skill set to enable them to find out what they’re going to be, particularly in non-vocational subjects.”
But for others, making that transition has been more of a drawn-out process of change. At Newcastle University achieving an embedded approach has meant extensive conversations between careers services and academic course teams to reset the approach.
“It’s been a long journey,” says Naomi Oosman-Watts, assistant director of the careers service at Newcastle. “We had to work out how we support the recognition of work on employability in the curriculum, and reassure that when we talk about embedding employability in the curriculum we don’t mean that departments will just be churning out these identical work-ready graduates. This is about doing the same kinds of things academics do in their subject – make sure students are utilising their knowledge in the best way they can.”
There is a potentially a tension between university-mandated graduate attribute or employability frameworks and the diversity of students’ aspirations and subject experience – but it can be a productive tension. Cat Wilson, director of the centre for educational enhancement and development at the University of St Andrews has just completed a strategic review of the university’s graduate attribute framework.
“The last set of graduate attributes we had from ten years ago withered on the vine,” she admits. “They were too static, just sitting on a web page – and also quite prescriptive, as if we were saying ‘these are the skills you will develop’.” The new graduate attributes align with the university’s wider strategy and capture an ethos – a mindset, more than a skill set – with “global outlook”, “valuing diversity”, and “social responsibility” sitting alongside leadership and enterprise. A widespread consultation process helped to articulate the various skills associated with each, which was pared down to twenty core attributes. “We don’t expect students to develop all twenty,” says Cat. “We want to give them the opportunity to develop in areas where they want to.”
“Our student body is very large, and very diverse” says Mick McCormick, academic lead for employability at the Open University, who must consider the various needs of students who are entering university at the start of their careers, those who are aiming to develop in their profession or change career entirely, and those who are returning to education much later in life. A focus on developing students’ personal agency in planning and preparing for the future is therefore the central plank in the OU approach.
Helping students exercise choice and agency over their futures is a matter of ethics to careers professionals – and diverse students have diverse aspirations. “The way graduate success is measured isn’t necessarily conducive to the best outcome for students. We shouldn’t be pushing graduates to an outcome that isn’t what they necessarily want,” says Naomi. “It’s striking a balance between understanding the metrics and knowing what they represent, and applying an ethical approach to careers advice – for example, a student going into a non-graduate job in the care sector so they can start a PhD in clinical psychology two years later.”
While universities have done a great deal to embed employability-relevant activities in curricula and set up extra-curricular skills awards to recognise students’ personal and professional development outside their discipline, fostering effective student ownership and self-awareness of their own development could be the next big strategic shift.
Even the most engaged students may struggle to make the connection between their experience at university and their life beyond its walls. “Our students are brilliant but they are often poor at articulating what they’ve done – they’re active in extra-curriculars, but they need help to translate that into the language of employability,” says Cat.
To make employability meaningful and impactful for students there needs to be active development of students’ critical and self-reflective capability, and support to develop a sense of one or more possible future selves, and a development trajectory towards those possible futures. That includes thinking about their personal values and priorities, and the skills that will help them influence the world they enter into, as well as being prepared for employment.
“We’re dealing with students who are increasingly self-aware and increasingly mindful of the impact they’re having on the world around them – it’s our duty as an institution to help them understand that,” says Naomi. “We’re thinking about how they have a critical and self-aware journey that allows them to think about what they want for themselves, what they want to take out into the world.”
“We want to help students think about their professional identity and what they want to become,” says Liz. One aspect of this is opening students’ eyes to the “hidden curriculum” – professional cultures in their chosen industry or workplace – some of which students may be active in changing when they enter a profession.
Liz explains, “You wouldn’t want to have an entirely positive hidden curriculum because then students wouldn’t be exposed to challenges such as negative role models. So part of what we need to do is teach students about what the hidden curriculum is and reflective practice, and how to extract the good and actively reject the bad.”
“Students are going through this process of changing not just where they’re going in their career but also their personal identity,” says Mick. “Personal development is about supporting an emerging graduate identity which is not not just a career identity, it’s a whole range of identities personal and professional. Where is your moral compass, what’s your contribution going to be?”
Beyond the discipline
Building in moments for activity logging and reflection, such as personal development planning tools and reflective portfolios, can help to develop this awareness and sense of agency in students – particularly where students are actively prompted and supported to use these tools.
But universities are also taking it a step further in ways that blend embedding skills development in curricula, with giving students access to tools and opportunities that promote more conscious and challenging application of knowledge – mobilising, in particular, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills, and digital literacies.
Engaging students in academic research is one practical application. St Andrews is piloting vertically integrated modules in which interdisciplinary teams of students at every level take part in live research projects. “We see research as closely aligned with an enterprise mindset. Research involves creativity, it’s driven by data and science, it requires self-management and organisation,” explains Cat. “Research generates ideas so it’s thinking about what to do with those ideas.”
At Lincoln, an Industry 4.0 project is exploring with employers how diverse topics and themes such as digital skills, automation, programming, sustainability, and citizenship might interrelate within and across curricula. Industry partnerships, rather than simply preparing students for the workplace, can be a vehicle to shape the future of industry. Liz challenges the work-ready graduate model and prefers to consider skills development as a continuum: “It’s not helpful to have a really defined division in people’s minds between education and industry – by working really closely we can co-produce the future.”
Interdisciplinarity is also an increasing area of focus. Naomi gives the example of the School of English working with the School of Maths and Computing at Newcastle on a joint enterprise challenge. “For students it’s a nice day, but it’s also important to get them away from what they know about their subject and how they apply that knowledge in a different context and make links and connections outside their subject,” she says.
“I have a strong belief that one of the challenges we have as institution is that if we’re to say that students are future ready and work ready, we need to make sure they can communicate, and can work with people outside their disciplinary area,” says Mark Simpson, pro vice chancellor for learning and teaching at Teesside University.
“Digital empowerment” as Mark puts it, is central to Teesside’s Future Facing Learning strategy, meaning all staff and students are given tablets as standard, and are encouraged and supported to work with a range of digital tools and technologies to enrich learning and spark opportunity for creativity – including Teesside becoming Europe’s first Adobe Creative Campus. For example, Mark is interested in whether the virtual worlds created by gaming students for assessment could be used to support learning and teaching in other disciplines such as health.
“The digital divide is alive and well. There’s a misplaced notion of Gen Z students who come in with these skills already in place,” says Mark. “Lots are strong on social media, but applying what they know in a work setting is more difficult.” At Teesside students use creative tools to work with employers, including conducting research and translating research findings to apply to external organisations.
There are knock-on benefits on academic integrity as well. “So many universities are worried about plagiarism – but when you’ve got a creative project distinctive to your region it’s much more challenging to cheat than if you’re just doing a traditional essay,” notes Mark.
Break down silos
While these kinds of learning activities are no less academically rigorous or stretching than traditional learning and teaching – arguably, they can be more so – they require the engagement of different forms of expertise. They are grounded in partnerships between universities and industry, between academics across disciplines, and between academics and careers advisors, learning technologists, librarians and technicians.
“As universities we’re experts in education, employers are experts in their sector or industry – so co-production is crucial,” says Liz. “Working together ensures a coherent curriculum which delivers a long term approach to skill development, continuing post-graduation.”
“At Newcastle sometimes we take it for granted that our professional expertise in careers and employability is recognised and valued – I’m not sure that’s the case everywhere,” says Naomi.
Mark says, “It’s a mixture of academics and technicians who have embraced the future facing approach, and are now delivering learning in the classroom. I’m not precious about where things sit, I’m always let’s just get the vision in place and then we’ll work out who’s going to do what.”
The skills that the world expects of graduates – creativity and innovation, critical reflexivity, collaboration, and digital literacy – are equally essential for the university workforce to develop and role model for students. In that sense, crossing and breaking down disciplinary and professional silos within universities could unleash the sort of innovation that’s going to help graduates change the world.
This article is published in association with Adobe.
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