employability

Edulinks – Week ending 20 May 2011

This week, NUS and CBI jointly launched a guide to employability skills. The publication, Working Towards Your Future, is definitely worth a download.

As the NUS/CBI guide was released, engineering consultancy, Atkins, called on universities to help students more with employability skills. Good timing, eh?

In the US, there’s a lot of talk about bubbles in higher education. Is it worth studying for a degree? Is HE too expensive now? Weighing in on the debate are The Economist, Slate, and NPR. Will the UK ever suffer from ‘bubble’ worries?

A student at LSE argues that fees of £8,000 may not be as helpful to disadvantaged students as a £9,000 pricetag. Sound like a strange argument? Then read on!

Students are rushing to get into investment banking in the hope of a big salary, according to High Fliers Research. They also report that confidence in the graduate job market has improved and that over a third of finalists made early job applications. Graduate applications in the public sector has seen a drop, however.

With improved confidence comes bigger expectations. For the first time in three years, the expected (hoped for) starting salary has increased to an average of £22,600. Students expect to be earning nearly £40k after five years and over %15 interviewed expect a salary of more than £100,000 by the age of 30! Perhaps we’ll see some of them starring in the apprentice in the coming years…

Looking Beyond Employability

I found this tucked away near the end of an article in the Independent on Sunday:

“Students should learn not how to win arguments but how to ask subversive questions of authority, assess evidence and find the truth. They should discover how to critique the paradigms within which others expect us to live.”

That may sound trouble-making. Revolutionary, even. But that would be missing the point.

The important thing to think of here is ‘critical thinking’. About having access to and understanding of the tools that will enable you to do things. What you subsequently decide to do is then up to you.

photo by Dr.Fitz

“I’ve been looking everywhere to find employability skills…” (photo by Dr.Fitz)

So how can you be expected to ‘find the truth’? What if it’s not that simple?

Good questions. Things are never that simple. But neither question should stop you seeking out truth and question what is in front of you.

Critical thinking and employability skills bear many similarities. Engineering consultancy, Atkins, has called for universities to help students develop their employability skills:

“When considering whether to go to university, students would be wise to research where skills shortages lie in the marketplace and do a degree which is more likely to lead to a job offer.”

This view may help students and employers service needs right now, but it doesn’t cover possible future needs. Many jobs will be available in a decade or two that aren’t currently in existence. The skills shortage in that respect is a complete unknown.

To really achieve at employability, you need to look past employability in isolation. So how can you move forward without feeling completely in the dark?

A joint NUS and CBI guide to employability skills has been released to help with that. “Working Towards Your Future” is a short guide for students to get an idea of the general qualities employers are looking for in a graduate.

Aaron Porter, NUS president, said:

“A greater understanding of employability will enable today’s students to develop themselves, make a contribution and fulfil their potential tomorrow.”

You aren’t treading along an educational production line. You are participating in higher education. While you should expect your university to have the right types of access and tools in place for you to succeed, you should also feel a personal responsibility by acting with your own future in mind.

That doesn’t mean you’re only at university to enhance your career. Perhaps, like myself, you went into higher education because you wanted to find out more about a subject. An inquisitive mind is all it takes and you can be hooked.

Higher education can lead to a successful future and it can open many doors, but the fact it can lead to those things does not make it the reason behind higher education. Think of your life as a journey of lifelong learning and your skillset can be used beyond the ’employability’ tag.

Nevertheless, it would be daft to ignore students who attend university in the hope of brighter career prospects. Employability skills shouldn’t be an afterthought, but an integral part of your overall learning. By truly furthering your thoughts, considering other views, researching complex situations, opening up your mind, and imagining possibilities while you study, your employability should improve hugely. No matter how you define ’employability’.

While none of this happens automatically, university is one place where a lot of this is at hand to reach out and grab. So when something isn’t working out satisfactorily, or even if it’s just slightly out of your reach, don’t just sit back and grumble. Ask questions, assess evidence, and find the truth!

Providing information, advice and guidance to students

My previous post asked if you were taking too many study risks.

Arthur made a great point in the comments:

“The focus on your education should be increasing your capabilities, not getting through a series of assessment tasks. If you bought a car that did not have wheels, you would feel ripped off. So why buy an education without capabilities?”

No matter how aware you are of increasing capabilities, how can universities help you increase them further in a changing world?

image by rild

image by rild

Yesterday, Aaron Porter, President of NUS, spoke about the type of information, advice and guidance students need in order to develop talent and make the most of their time at university.  Speaking at the Graduate Talent conference on Innovation and Skills for Competitiveness, he gave a similar analogy to Arthur’s.

Porter said that if you buy a bike and the chain falls off after five minutes, you’d get a refund because the goods are faulty.  While he understood the massive difference between high street transactions and entering higher education, he still saw the need for an increasing recognition of how students perceive HE and the need for those students to have the right tools throughout their education.

That, he explained, is why information, advice and guidance needs to be properly targeted at the point of application, and that individuals are made aware of the differences in curriculum and community in different institutions.

You may be in the position to assess risk in terms of study, but what about ongoing?  What can a university do to help you minimise risks after you graduate?  And how can they help you minimise risks in terms of what you study and how you use your time at uni?

Porter covered a lot of ground in today’s talk and made a number of important points.  Here are the main details covered in his talk:

  • Students will begin to change the way they engage with institutions. More students will actively ask “What can I do to guarantee employment?”
  • So much information is available, but it’s hard to navigate through it all.  How can the relevant information be provided to students in an easy to digest fashion?
  • Student background makes a difference in how easily individuals can navigate information.  Must address a diverse community, so nobody is left behind or left wanting.
  • League tables are used to choose where to study, but not always with real understanding of what those tables mean & how to see the big differences between institutions.
  • Students won’t dust down a strategic report on what employers want from graduates.  As good as the advice may be, there is still a need to put the detail forward in a way that students *will* access it.
  • How often during induction are students actually asked what the purpose of HE is, told how it is different to what learning has come before, and asked what they personally want out of HE?  Helping students to focus on these critical issues will make a huge difference to their experience and understanding.  Ask critical questions at the start to earlier allow students to prepare better.
  • Need to think about better integrating employability and careers into curriculum and teaching.  Students now expect this, so let’s deliver.
  • Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) needs rolling out quickly to make a level playing field for students.  Beef up academic achievement and its detail, while also highlighting achievement outside the classroom.
  • Drawing out this information through HEAR will help graduates articulate their achievements and skills.  In turn, job applications can be better targeted by graduates, as they can sell themselves more accurately.
  • All students should feel able to participate in extra-curricular activities, whatever their background.
  • Work exp. & internships need to become almost an entitlement, especially with fees about to climb.
  • Way in which we communicate information needs to be more innovative in terms of social media.  On campus and off campus, are institutions operating in the same environments as students?  Careers information is perfect territory to take on social media, because it’s not likely to be seen as a personal intrusion.
  • National measure of employment needs to go beyond a 6-month view.  1 year, 3 years, 5 years, etc.  Students need to know, because education costs are growing and employability is a big deal.
  • There is a danger that learning for its own sake may be lost.  Could be an adverse impact on which skills students learn before graduation.
  • Browne didn’t crack the problem of getting an entirely flexible HE system.  The opportunity was there, but hasn’t been addressed.  We must, therefore, still think about how we can address the issues.  This is critical in allowing students to get the employment skills they need.
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Employability & the Role of the University

Should universities teach students how to find a job? Are employment skills a necessary requirement for higher education to deliver today?

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

With so many new graduates each year, employers are spoilt for choice on who to give a job. If a company wants to recruit graduates, it’ll have no difficulty. If a company wants to recruit graduates with specific skills, the choice may be more difficult.

It’s like with A-levels. Universities find it increasingly difficult to work out which students to give offers to, because so many A-level students are receiving good grades. More unis are asking for at least one A* grade to help identify students of the highest calibre. But what happens when this grade fails to identify anything useful? And is this still a reasonable and effective method of finding the most able students?

There was a time when simply ‘being a graduate’ was enough to help you stand out from the crowd. Securing employment wasn’t as tough, because there were fewer graduates in the same position. Regardless of actual ability, having a degree was a notch above many.

Yet today, with so many graduates in the mix, employers look for more than a grade. Even a First at a prestigious university isn’t enough to grab whatever you desire.

Where does that leave you upon graduation? Should universities be responsible for ensuring a certain level of competence or employability before allowing you to graduate?

I’m not convinced it should be obligatory.  As a place of learning, university isn’t solely about business and career.  And it’s not possible to attain a particular level or type of ’employability’.

For instance, Boden & Nedeva highlight differences between Anglia Ruskin and Oxford:

“It is likely that local interpretations of notions of what makes graduates employable would be different for the University of Oxford and Anglia Ruskin University. The University of Oxford website does not contain an employability statement but, despite this, Oxford graduates are widely regarded as highly employable. Moreover, education at Oxford has not been changed in accordance with the employability agenda: broad-based knowledge and cultural capital are still the currencies that students accumulate.”
[Employing discourse: universities and graduate ’employability’]

Despite this, I believe students should be assured the following, whatever institution they attend:

  • Guaranteed availability of assistance and preparation for life after graduation if a student should request it;
  • Continued support from careers services, including a more detailed and personal service in some cases;
  • Clear information & explanation on improving employability and transition into work;
  • Before going in to HE, give students awareness that a degree is not an automatic passport to a job or career;
  • Give those pre-HE students guidance on the alternatives to university, along with general pros and cons to each.

I’m uncertain who would be responsible for supplying the resources for the last two points…universities, schools, government department, outsourced…?  But it is necessary.  Harriet Dunbar-Goddet at 1994 Group makes a simple, yet entirely valid point:

“Information is not enough, prospective students also need advice and guidance on how to make use of it.”

Any number of tools can be offered to students, but it counts for nothing if there is little awareness and an inability to make proper use of those tools.

In response to Harriet’s point, I said that it’s like being given all the separate components to build a car and then being expected to build it yourself with no fuss. You’d recognise some of the parts, but they would mean nothing in isolation.  There is similarity in this:

“As Tomlinson (2007) points out, students nowadays no longer anticipate a clear link between their merit in education and its reward in the labour market.”
[Less time to study, less well prepared for work, yet satisfied with higher education]

A selection of courses at some universities allow a year in relevant industry. This helps many graduates stand out both on their CV and in terms of actual experience, which is often lacking upon graduationBullock et al, say:

“Our study confirms other findings that an extended work placement enhances the likelihood of a good degree and preferred employment. Although the sandwich model preferred in this university is not perfect, the perception shared by students, academics and employers is that benefits outweigh drawbacks.”
[‘Work placement experience: should I stay or should I go?‘]

Even if work placements and generous employability support are provided by universities, is it enough?  A recent paper by Hinchliffe & Jolly examines broader knowledge, identity and well-being as possible keys to greater employability. They look at a more holistic approach whereby students focus not solely on employability, but on the bigger picture:

“Our studies suggest that universities and government would be better employed promoting student employability indirectly through the promotion of graduate identity and well-being (through the provision of opportunities for functioning) rather than directly through employability skills.”
[Graduate identity and employability]

Given the issues discussed above, it’s no wonder that a degree doesn’t automatically result in magical employment.

Boden & Nedeva are concerned that matters go beyond employability. Is higher education in danger of giving too narrow a focus to learning when it should be giving a wider perspective?

“Universities should be the critical friends to civil society, enlightening, informing and engaging, as part of their service. The growth within universities of pedagogical approaches based around the ‘delivery’ of ‘teaching materials’ in a narrow set of ‘skills and competencies’ bodes ill for the execution of this wider public intellectual role. This, we argue, is perhaps the most alarming of implications.” [Source]

And the take home point?

When you identify any goal, career or otherwise, strike out using your own initiative and find who and what can help you around your own actions.

Whatever your university has to offer, take responsibility for your future. Look beyond the grades and beyond the reputation of the institution.  Look to yourself and what you have to offer.  It’s often a lot more that you think.