We can work it out

By Rebecca Attwood

As graduate numbers in the UK have grown in recent decades, so too have universities’ emphasis on equipping students with the skills to succeed in the job market. Since the recession, the focus is now stronger than ever.

When someone told James Reed of UK-based Reed Recruitment, “We don’t know which skills will be most in demand in 10 years’ time,” he decided to ask employers a question. If they had to choose between an individual with ‘the desired mindset’ who lacked the complete skill set for the job, and an individual with the complete skill set but without the desired mindset, which would it be?

The individual with the desired mindset was chosen by 1 212 out of 1 263 respondents. “If we get the mindset right, it is more likely to lead to skills being developed as a consequence,” says Reed, who fears that much of what is on offer may be “facing the wrong way”. Is business good at communicating what it wants from graduates to the education sector in the UK? “Perhaps not,” he admits. “Given the answer to our question, it is not unreasonable to ask why everyone is focusing on skills.” One thing is clear, however: employers want graduates with relevant experience of the workplace.

Combining off-campus work placements and on-campus academic study

Many countries have a long history of degrees that combine off-campus work placements with on-campus academic study. But research indicates that the extent to which this is part of the typical student experience varies significantly. Survey data published by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at The Open University last year indicate that the UK has one of the lowest rates of participation in work placements in Europe, at around 30%. The only country where the figure was lower was Italy, at 22%. In contrast, the figure was 84% in France and 87% in the Netherlands.

In the United States, courses that alternate work placements with university study are commonly known as cooperative education, and are offered by about 500 higher education institutions. At Drexel University, the majority of students take a five-year bachelor’s degree, during which they leave the campus to take part in three six-month work placements: once in the second year, once in the third year and once in the fourth year.

The advantage of the model is that students can try out different areas of work and leave university with a clear idea of what they want to do, says Peter Franks, Senior Associate Vice Provost for career education at Drexel’s Steinbright Career Development Centre. “They’ve had 30 interviews by the time they graduate. They know how to interview and they know how to job search. They have a CV that is substantial with professional work experience.”

In the United Kingdom, figures suggest a decline over the past 12 years in the number of ‘sandwich courses’ combining study and work placements. According to a joint Universities UK (UUK) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report published last year (Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work), 10.5% of all undergraduates in 1994/95 were classified as being on a ‘sandwich course’, but by 2006-07 the figure had dropped to 6.5%.

The University of Surrey – which comes top in the latest employment statistics – has a long tradition of year-long work placements. As the university has expanded from science and engineering into the arts and social sciences, it has taken that tradition with it. Marion Wynne-Davies, Head of Surrey’s Department of English, was asked two years ago to set up a BA in English Literature degree that would allow for the possibility of a professional training year. She says that the programme has been “a triumph”, with every student entering paid employment. Students work in arts centres, libraries and galleries, and in marketing, teaching and journalism.

Every department at Surrey has a professional training tutor who, with the support of an administrator, finds placements for students – although some students choose to seek out their own. The tutor visits every employer and draws up a contract with them, and the student is supported throughout the placement.

Institutions compelled to consider employability statements

Bold claims are made in the employability statements that the United Kingdom government asked every university to publish in 2010: “Employability is at the heart of everything we do”; “You will leave us with attributes to help you stand out from the crowd”; “The university does not simply talk about employability, we deliver it.”

The publication of employability statements fulfils a requirement set out in Labour’s 2009 framework for the future of higher education, a document that asked all universities “to demonstrate how they prepare their students for employment, including through training in modern workplace skills such as team working, business awareness and communication skills”.

In addition, the framework called for universities to publish more information about their courses – a policy strongly backed by the new coalition government. Data on employment rates are set to become more prominent and, controversially, students may soon have access to details about the graduate earnings associated with every university course.

Business and students also applying pressure

But the pressure placed on universities to pursue the ‘employability agenda’ has not just come from government. Complaints from business about graduates’ skills were common long before the economic downturn. A survey conducted to inform the 2009 joint CBI and UUK publication on the issue found that 35% of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ business/customer awareness, 20% with their self-management skills and 13% with their communication and literacy.

The majority of employers (82%) thought the sector should be focusing on developing current students’ employability skills rather than increasing graduate numbers. Then there is demand from students, who face increasing uncertainty over their future employment prospects. For their report, the CBI and UUK surveyed 880 students, 35% of whom said they would have taken a stand-alone employability programme had it been available. More than a third (34%) said they would have taken up an internship, and 23% would have chosen to take a sandwich course if their university had given them the option.

The National Student Forum, a student body set up in 2008 by the Labour government, has also called for more opportunities for students to take part in all of these things. Employment-oriented and vocational courses have always been a focus for some universities, but a shift towards the pursuit of ‘employability skills’ is now taking place more broadly across the sector. The models favoured are diverse: creditbearing career-oriented modules, work placements, personal development planning, teaching styles that incorporate group work and ‘real-life’ scenarios, activities and awards designed to encourage volunteering or entrepreneurship, career workshops
and foundation degrees.

Significant challenges

However, recent research suggests that the transition has not been a straightforward one. In the CBI-UUK survey, 16% of universities reported “significant difficulties” in addressing employability issues with their students.

There was also disagreement over where the main responsibility lay: 21% of universities said they largely expected students to address employability issues for themselves. An in-depth qualitative study on careers education in universities – Values at Work: A Qualitative Study of Careers Education in Higher Education, funded by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and published in 2009 – shed light on the way careers education is perceived by staff. In preparing the report, Julia Horn, a lecturer in Educational Development for Researchers at the Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, conducted 16 hours of interviews at eight United Kingdom universities with academics and careers staff involved in the delivery of credit-bearing, career-focused undergraduate courses.

Horn observed that many academics abdicated responsibility for the content of careers modules they were involved with, deferring to career advisers as the experts in the area. Other academics held naive views about careers education, yet had significant control over the content of the course. All this worries Horn. “Careers advisers can be refused entry to, or can refuse to enter, debates about assessment, criteria, judgement and standards,” she said in her report. “Simultaneously, lecturers and academics can be refused entry to, or can refuse to enter, debates about content, curricula, learning and outcomes. Yet a good course relies on both content and assessment being closely linked, and on course staff having knowledge of and control over both.

“Convenient alliances between departments and module leaders to put into place assessment methods that masquerade as valid, while not promoting appropriate learning from students, threaten the ability of courses to produce good outcomes,” she warns. And all the staff Horn spoke to had to deal with a proportion of students who did not engage with the programme. “I think one of the main stumbling blocks is that career-oriented employment is outside our students’ experience,” said one interviewee.

A move to instrumentalism?

Exacerbating these tensions were concerns about an ever-growing focus on employment-rate statistics. Several interviewees felt under pressure to demonstrate the validity of their courses through an improvement in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) statistics, which measure graduate employment six months after graduation, but they had been unable to do this successfully.

The danger of this approach is that careers and careers services become associated with instrumentalism. “If careers courses are justified to senior management of universities only on the promise of improving performance indicators, then career modules that foreground educational, liberal, social and other values are likely to come under threat – even though these values might be embraced within, as well as beyond, the higher education and careers guidance community,” says Horn’s report.

Michael Tomlinson, a lecturer in Educational Studies at Keele University, encountered similar attitudes among academics when he was conducting research for his book, Higher Education and Graduate Employability (VDM Verlag, 2009).

“There is a fear that overemphasising employability may be diverting attention from broader educational goals around personal development, citizenship and developing a more critical outlook on the world.”

Talk about careers, not employability

Horn worries that, in an effort to engage students, much careers education is centred on a ‘deficit’ model. “A lot of it is about telling students that they are inadequate, that they have not got enough work experience, they don’t have the right attitude – ‘a degree is not enough; you have no idea what is coming to you’.

“Students have been told all their lives how important it is to go to university and when they get there they are told off for believing that.” The term ‘employability’ may be all the rage among policymakers, but Horn prefers the term ‘career’, which she sees as broader. “To me, employability tends to suggest what the employers want and is a sort of one-way view – employers tell students how to be,” she says. “I feel career is the other way around, a two-way view, and that is how it should be.”

She would like to hear a stronger voice from recent graduates. “There is very little research into how new graduates experience the jobs market in the first five years. It is a
remarkably silent corner of all of this.”

What employers say they want

A recent report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills compared 20 published definitions and found no agreement. However, almost all definitions are “in practice quite similar”, the Commission claims. They centre on personal communication skills, using numbers, words and technology, team-working and customer care.

Also needed is a “positive approach”: being ready to “participate, make suggestions and accept new ideas and constructive criticism.” Reed Recruitment has surveyed 800 employers to draw up a list of the key qualities they look for in a candidate. Top of the list are honesty and trustworthiness, followed by commitment, adaptability and accountability. James Reed often encounters the view that mindset is not something that can be taught, but he argues that mindset is influenced by education and experience.

“I think of mindset as a lens through which you see the world – and that lens can be adjusted.”

This article first appeared in the Times Higher Education and is reproduced here with its and the author’s kind permission.

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Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2011

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