In April 2023 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 91 per cent of students were somewhat or very worried about the rising cost of living and 78 per cent were concerned that the rising cost of living might affect how well they do in their studies.
In response to the cost of living crisis universities have taken a number of measures, including helping with the cost of accommodation and travel, and providing free meals. But there’s a broader impact on students’ employability.
Employability relates to the development of skills and attributes which will enable graduates to be successful throughout their careers, and is different to employment which measures the number of students in graduate level employment. Acquiring subject knowledge helps to develop some skills, but gaining real employability skills requires a broad range of experiences.
When students do not have spare cash they need to be using any spare time that they have on earning extra money to see them through their studies. They have less time to engage with a broad range of experiences outside of the curriculum, and this could impede the development of their employability skills. The cost of living crisis has brought this issue into sharp relief, and looks unlikely to change any time soon – but it’s also worth adding that there have always been students who have needed to work, and whose complex lives have made it difficult to engage with a broad portfolio of student activity.
This suggests, therefore, that universities should be avoiding employability initiatives which require students to do something extra, outside of their studies. Gaining employability skills has got to be pushed back into the curriculum.
Employer-set challenges in a module
One approach is to bring the type of work that students might do on a summer placement into the module itself. For example, at the University of Derby students who studied the BSc Logistics and Supply Chain Management spent 8-9 days working in a logistics organisation as part of a 40 credit module. They then presented findings and recommendations to managers in the organisation. This developed skills that they would later use in a logistics career, and also gave them something specific to talk about at an interview.
At the University of Birmingham students on the MSc Marketing programme are required to design their own concept store as the assessment for one module, something that they might be required to do if they pursue a career in marketing. This approach is particularly effective because careers professionals work alongside the students to help them to articulate the skills that they have developed and to assist them in showcasing their skills to the industry professionals who have helped to design the module.
Carefully timed activities
If the cost of living crisis means that students are less likely to be engaging in extracurricular activities, and therefore are relying on experiences embedded in the curriculum to develop their employability skills, the timing of these experiences is crucial. This was explored at Leeds Trinity University where, up to September 2020, students were required to do a two week work placement launch and a five week placement in year 1, a six week placement in year 2 and an optional work-based project in year 3 of their undergraduate degree.
Students found the placement in year 1 a challenge, partly due to a lack of certainty about their career plans, and partly due to a lack of confidence (over 60 per cent of the students are first in family to go to university, which is seen as impacting their confidence level). Acting on the feedback, Leeds Trinity changed this to an optional placement in year 1 (for those who are ready to do it) and a core placement for all in year 3. Leeds Trinity concluded that it is not just what is put into the curriculum that matters, but the timing of when it appears.
The university responsibility for employability is a well rehearsed argument – the student also has responsibility, but the university must take a significant lead in ensuring that the opportunities to develop employability skills are easily accessible. Given the demands that students are facing due to the cost of living crisis it seems that the greatest need is to move quickly to get those employability opportunities into the curriculum.
Saskia Loer Hansen and Kathy Daniels have co-edited How to Enable the Employability of University Graduates (2023), with contributions from more than 60 authors across the world.