Why higher education needs graduate workers’ perspectives

Miriam Firth explains why incorporating graduates' working experiences into teaching is essential to helping students develop

Dr Miriam Firth is a senior lecturer in environment, education and development at the University of Manchester, and Chair of the Creative Industries AGCAS Working Group.

Employability, placements, and work based learning are important for all university students.

In one short sentence I have just turned off swaths of colleagues, but bear with me. These marmite terms are not about to be thrown around in careless abandonment in another KIS/metrics driven rant. Nor is this a post on how to support you to do something you do not want/need to do.

I am calling colleagues to action to embed your graduates’ perspectives in your classes. Doing so will not only liven up class discussion – and engage those asleep or blank screens – but also situate knowledge in different contexts in order to challenge your students’ theoretical comprehension.

My reason for calling colleagues to incorporate graduate perspectives? My research from a needs analysis study identified that the theory and practice in graduate employment do not always match up. Furthermore, from my 14 years’ experience as an HE lecturer I have seen a marked improvement in student to graduate wellbeing as a direct result of considering graduate perspectives within university study. It’s a win-win to me, so I thought I’d share.

Learning and working

Universities should ensure that students research and respond to real-world issues as part of their studies, no matter the subject area of their qualification.

Situating their studies in working contexts is essential for their part-time work during their studies and preparation for graduate life. It is estimated that 66 per cent of UK university students support their studies via part-time employment. Situating learning in working contexts is therefore not only important for their graduate life, but student life also. A high proportion of UK students complete this part-time work in the hospitality industry due to the flexibility and appeal of the work.

Work completed in the hospitality industry requires individual adaptability, flexibility, negotiation, dealing with difference, and handling difficult customer requests. If students are to work or graduate into these roles they must have an awareness on how to respond and deal with these situations.

Many students and graduates are not fully equipped to deal with extensive colleague or customer demands placed on them in the workplace, regardless of their degree title and occupation.

Students need to be aware of, and practice responding to, global situations. Wherever our students move to after they complete their higher education, they need to be adaptable to different groups of people, issues, and demands made of them.

Work-based learning is therefore an appropriate pedagogy from which students can apply their learning in relevant working contexts to critique its application and relevance to the working world. Students can also self-reflect on their individual responses within work experience in order to problematise their knowledge and skills in external situations.

By situating learning in working contexts, students are able to critically reflect on what is happening in the context, how they would respond, and how they can improve in skills and knowledge to better prepare for similar incidents.

How can graduate stories help?

In the absence of work-based opportunities, case studies are the most commonly accepted form of study material from which to consider working situations or external contexts. But by themselves, case studies are insufficient and do not prepare students for life post-graduation as the distance between the situation and the student lens is still too abstract and objective.

Instead, using real-life graduate stories in teaching better engages and situates student positions, knowledge, and self-reflection because they carry more weight and relevance. The situation is moved from a case study on “let’s look at this example of a difficult customer’ to “let’s learn about Sophie’s story as a waitress in a hotel, when a customer asked for sexual services instead of paying for their bill.”

There is increased power in the validity of a story. In tandem, stories invoke a more emotional and reactive perception of the situation by the student. Sophie’s story aside, students in every degree should be prepared for a range of demands placed upon them in graduate life.

Whether the demands link to intercultural sensitivity, gendered aesthetic labour, interpersonal skills, or management and colleague conflict, all students should have the opportunity to critically reflect on how they would respond to a range of external situations as part of their studies.

Once students have considered their responses to these situations they can then reflect on whether their response is ideal, and how they can develop their knowledge and skills to better succeed in similar situations upon graduation. Using graduate narrative stories is both an insightful research method and a supportive teaching method to better equip students for graduate life.

Narratives are important

Higher education must pivot to respond to the challenges of real-life employment to sufficiently prepare the next generation of employees and engaged members of a democratic society. Applying a narrative approach to research helps to offer insights into situations where other methods still include researcher subjectivity within the inquiry.

Narrative data, if gathered appropriately, is rich in an individual’s account and perception of a situation. Not only can the stories from graduates enable student self-reflection and development within their studies, it can also lead to improved social responsibility and industry training for future generations.

3 responses to “Why higher education needs graduate workers’ perspectives

  1. I think the idea of formalising the experiences of graduates is a useful one. To take this a step further, perhaps we should be using case studies of our alumni rather than merely inviting them to speak to graduates at employability events which seems to be the norm. This way, our students could see the relevance of their current studies to their future selves.

  2. I think this is a very important point as many graduates being thrown into the work world may be totally unaware of what situations they may face in any role. Instead of only teaching them what they need to know to pass exams and qualify, we should also be teaching them the context of what they will face and perhaps other soft skills and knowledge they need for the workplace. I totally agree with your approach

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