In a rapidly-changing labour market, how can students be prepared to be citizens of the world, as well as the future job creators and workers? Wyn Morgan and Catherine O’Mahony look at the definition of employability and break down why it is time to imagine a broader approach – one that encompasses the totality of student development.
While higher education plays a crucial role in preparing students for future careers, employability extends beyond a narrow focus on jobs to the development of student attributes and skills that make them able to contribute and thrive in the world into which they graduate. This view on employability emphasises the ongoing work of universities in creating and sharing knowledge, often with third parties such as industry, NGOs, governments, and the third sector. Such a vision for employability requires strategic steering and leadership - and must be supported by appropriate structures and support.
A focus on graduate attributes can provide a useful synoptic lens. Such attributes are often defined at an institution-wide level, with local detail and nuance being devised at the faculty, department or, indeed, programme level. Development of attributes happens in a variety of settings, both curricular and co-curricular, and there is a continuum along which students will find themselves depending on their programme and their capacity to engage with other activities. Students often need support to begin uncovering what they are learning, making the connections across courses and years, and out to their lived experiences. The articulation of graduate attributes can help focus student attention on key attributes and encourage students to begin naming these. The challenge is making institutionally derived graduate attributes meaningful for students and relevant to the disciplines.
If we want to broaden this vision of employability, then a first step is to consider the challenges that shape how institutions articulate their approach to supporting employability skills development in their students. Firstly, how can we align programme offerings to meet societal needs and how do we identify these needs in ever shifting sands? Secondly, how can employability be integrated into the curriculum with an emphasis on the development of generic attributes as well as disciplinary skills? Underpinning both is a strong sense of equality of opportunity for all students, especially where these opportunities lie outside the curriculum, and to ensure capture and recognition of the learning from these activities.
Aligning programmes to meet society’s needs is not straightforward. Academics, while clearly not expected to be career counsellors, play an important role in aligning teaching, learning and assessment activities with the programme learning outcomes. Those learning outcomes are often informed through close collaboration with career office staff, and it is through this process that the wider set of development opportunities in the institution can be mapped and understood. Thus, each programme of study does not necessarily have to capture everything. Such an approach helps create a very clear continuation of support and co-creation of learning opportunities for the students.
The next step to integrate employability into the curriculum is a significant one and again must be carefully designed to avoid tokenism. Students must be able to see and value what is happening through their learning - including beyond the curriculum - so that they can articulate to employers and others what they have to offer. This requires clear endorsement of activities designed to help students develop their skills, alongside sign-posting of learning opportunities to engage in wider skills development, and our experience suggests that this needs to come from the institutional level. Without institutional ownership and direction, it is hard to envisage wide-scale impact or take-up of the broader employability agenda. It is here that institutional frameworks and structures become so important and help both academics and students navigate the world of skills development.
Taking ownership of employability and demonstrating leadership in responding to the identified challenges is evident across the higher education sector in Europe. For instance, at the University of Sheffield, an Employability Action Plan has been devised and led by the Careers Service and championed by the Vice-President for Education. It provides the necessary scaffolding to support activity within and beyond academic departments. Crucially, it ensures a whole institutional focus on employability, rather than simply pushing responsibility to departments and expecting them to produce the required results alone. This is being done through a programme-level approach. The starting point in the approach is defining the attributes a graduate of a programme should embody which clearly speaks to the employability agenda.
The challenge of ensuring equal opportunity for students is lessened when the curriculum is intentionally designed to embed employability. While it is neither appropriate nor possible to offer high quality placements in every year of every programme, introductory activities can help students on this learning path. University College Cork has articulated a self-evaluation tool for employability in support of its Academic Strategy. This tool suggests different curricular approaches with increasing levels of integration of employability from an introductory element, to the focus of a learning activity or assessment, or the central design focus of a programme. As an introductory step, students engage in extra or co-curricular activities and use these to begin to map employability goals. Students can then be challenged and supported to identify their developing attributes and to integrate these with their developing disciplinary knowledge. The next step includes a growing awareness by the students of their professional and personal attributes and sees them beginning to critique the professional possibilities integral to their future. A fully integrated approach is where the curriculum explicitly incorporates employability through specific professional development modules and/or work-based learning initiatives. Not all disciplines or courses should move towards full integration, but this tool provides pointers on how to begin this process and can broaden the opportunities for engagement by all students.
The pivot online due to the Covid-19 crisis has had a particular impact on the role of work integrated learning and has required a reimagining of placement. We are still grappling with how to make this work, but it is also an opportune time to reflect on which sectors of the economy can be meaningfully engaged with as sites of experiential learning. We can also take this time for a broader imagining of employability to encompass the full totality of student development, so we are preparing students to be citizens of the world as well as the future job creators and workers.
“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.