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Employability: A blog series

  • 4 March 2022
  • By Saskia Loer Hansen and Kathy Daniels

The first in this weekly series of blogs on the issue of employability was written by Saskia Loer Hansen, Interim Vice Chancellor, and Professor Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor, of Aston University.

Proposals recently put forward by the Office for Students suggest minimum requirements that universities should meet to deliver positive outcomes for their students. The proposal is that the following threshold levels should be applied to full-time students studying for their first degree:

  • 80 per cent of students to continue into a second year of study;
  • 75 per cent of students to complete their qualification; and
  • 60 per cent of students to go into professional employment or further study.

The third threshold level points to the continued importance and the ongoing work of universities in addressing employability and students finding work or further study after their studies. What do we actually mean when we talk about employability, and what is the role of universities in addressing this?

Cheng et al (2021) explore the many definitions of employability, and from this exploration a number of themes emerge:

  1. Employability depends upon the capabilities of individuals, of intrinsic characteristics which relate to the personal attributes and skills of the individual.
  2. Employability depends upon the labour market, and upon the chance of finding and keeping different types of employment.
  3. Employability is linked to social capital, primarily because those with lower social capital are less likely to have had the opportunity to engage with work experience and develop employability skills. 

This suggests, therefore, that the most employable students will be those with the capabilities required to be successful, access to a thriving labour market and well-developed social capital. Addressing just one of these factors will not be enough for universities to be certain of achieving the third of the OfS’s metrics, or indeed to deliver ‘value for money’ for students.

Employability blogs

We wanted to gain an insight into how universities are addressing these different dimensions of employability, and to share good practice which will help universities meet students’ expectations about graduate jobs or, indeed, the OfS’s employability-focused threshold levels. Therefore, we have worked with colleagues to put together a series of 11 blogs about employability which will be published every Friday by HEPI. 

We start the series by considering current policy, and what the Government expects universities to deliver. We are then going to explore each of the aforementioned dimensions of employability.

Increasing the capabilities of students

There is a difference between employment outcomes, on which the OfS’s metric is focused, and employability. This distinction was made by the Higher Education Academy in 2012 in their Pedagogy for Employability guidance. They defined employment as the graduate outcome which universities measure, and employability as a ‘range of knowledge, skills and attributes which support continued learning and career development’.

The OfS metric could drive universities into focusing too much on employment, the immediate outcome after graduation, and not enough on employability, the equipping of students with transferable skills which will allow them to continue to develop their career in future years or to start their own businesses or manage a portfolio of work opportunities. In our series of blogs, we are going to feature two case studies that look at the development of employability skills, one from the University of Derby, looking at a specific employability initiative, and the other from University Centre South Devon, looking at embedding employability skills in the curriculum.

The labour market

Developing employability skills alone is not sufficient for a student to be successful in employment. The student also needs to understand how to apply those skills in the workplace. Employers see employability as being ‘work ready’, not just having a bundle of skills. However, getting meaningful work experience can be difficult for a student, especially for students who might be lacking self-confidence.

In our series, a colleague from Aston University will explore the value of the placement year, in gaining work experience, and hence the ability to be ‘work ready’.

However, not all students have the confidence to engage with a placement year, and a blog from Leeds Trinity University will provide a case study showing a way of addressing the employability dimensions of both the labour market and social capital. 

Social capital

Students who have access to networks of employers and support and advice mechanisms have greater access to information and resources which gives them an advantage when seeking employment. Students without access to these networks need additional support when progressing through higher education, and we will include two blogs in our series that look at this issue of social capital.

We will look at work that has been carried out at the University of Exeter in working with students from disadvantaged groups to understand and conceptualise the barriers that might be experienced in achieving good employability outcomes, and ways to overcome those barriers. 

We will then look at the way employability impacts on the levelling up agenda, and explore some of the specific challenges that this agenda is highlighting. 

Bringing the dimensions together

Separating employability out into the three dimensions of personal attributes, the labour market and social capital helps us to put the spotlight on different ways of enhancing employability. However, it is also evident that there is a need to bring these dimensions together to have maximum impact on students. Our next blog will look at the challenge that universities face in the repositioning of their Access and Participation Plans, thinking about the way that students from disadvantaged backgrounds need support in learning employability skills, access to the labour market and developing social capital

We will conclude our blogs by looking at the work of Sussex University, demonstrating how a holistic approach can be effectively delivered through a comprehensive university strategy focused on world readiness and employability.  

Conclusion

Developing the employability of students is, and will remain, an essential part of the purpose of higher education. Bringing together the ideas and experiences from a range of institutions will help to give universities new insights into how they can meet this purpose, and will help to understand how future policy developments could be shaped.

When we come to the end of the blogs, we will reflect on all that we have learnt. We will conclude by identifying what universities can do to be sure that they continue to deliver great graduate outcomes and transferable employability skills for their students, in the process equipping themselves to achieve the ‘progression’ threshold levels for different student cohorts, as proposed by the Office for Students. 

Employability Blog Series:

11 March: Three Policy Turning Points that Changed the Higher Education Employability Agenda 

Lizzy Woodfield, Policy Adviser, and Rachel McIntosh, Director of Employability, Aston University.

18 March: Reflections: Research on employability and its effect on policy and practice

Professor Helen Higson, Associate Dean for Accreditations, Aston University.

25 March: Modifying the Journey to Graduate Employment through Changes to Work-Based Learning

Professor Catherine O’Connor, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and Experience, Leeds Trinity University

1 April: The Big College Challenge: A case study presenting interdisciplinary development of employability skills

Dr Val Derbyshire, Impact Officer, Dr Laurice Fretwell, Course Director for Human Sciences, and Dr Caroline Harvey, Senior Lecturer, University of Derby

8 April: Embedding Employability within the Student Experience of Higher Education: A case study of an ‘integrated’ approach to employability

Dr Matthew Vince, HE Enterprise and Employability Coordinator, and Thea Jones, Deputy Head of Higher Education, University Centre South Devon 

22 April: Employability Monsters: Exploring the challenges and barriers to employability

Dr Dawn Lees, Student Employability & Development Manager, and Kate Foster, Employability & Careers Consultant (Widening Participation), University of Exeter

29 April: Getting On, Not Just Getting In

Saskia Loer Hansen, Interim Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (Engagement), Aston University

6 May: Sussex 2025 World Readiness and Employability Strategy

Emily Huns, Head of Careers and Entrepreneurship, and Susan Smith, Associate Dean (Education and Students), University of Sussex 

13 May: The Great Levelling Up Debate: The role of graduate employability in regional prosperity

Gabi Binnie, Head of Funded Projects, GradConsult

20 May: Employability: Lessons for the future

Saskia Loer Hansen, Interim Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (Engagement), Aston University

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1 comment

  1. John bird says:

    Ironic really…, increasing precarity for university lecturers who are being asked to help students to be more employable as precarity increases across labour markets….

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