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Employability Blog Series: Reflections on Aston-based research on employability and its effect on policy and practice

  • 18 March 2022
  • By Helen Higson

The third in this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Professor Helen Higson, Associate Dean for Accreditations at Aston University.

Aston University has been known for the transformational effect that it has on students since it became a university in 1966.  The University grew from an institution (the Birmingham Municipal Technical College), set up in 1895 by the employers of Birmingham, because they could not find enough employees with the appropriate skills.  

The University’s Charter outlines its central purpose: 

to advance, disseminate and apply learning and knowledge by teaching and research, for the benefit of industry and commerce and of the community generally … include periods outside the University in industry or commerce

Aston University Charter, 22 April 1966.

Aston’s founding objective to make its graduates the most employable global citizens continues to this day.

The majority of degrees on offer at Aston have professional accreditation from the relevant sector body, and the curriculum is designed to ensure that students learn relevant set of skills and competencies. The aspect that is most unique to Aston, however, is its year-long placement, which is assessed and integrated into the curriculum.  Nearly 75 per cent of undergraduate students undertake a placement year annually, and many study degrees which have a compulsory placement year.  

I have led initiatives across the University to encourage students to take a placement and to demonstrate to them and the wider policy community the lasting impact this integrated work experience has on their employability.  This blog is an overview of the body of research I have contributed to over nearly 20 years, and a reflection on the way that this work has influenced policy and practice for Aston and nationally.  

Looking back on my research I think there are four stages: basic practice, the employer angle, policy, and redefining employability.  I reflect on these below.


My exploration of placement activity began back in 2005 when I started observing how students engaged with placements and how to maximise the benefit they gained from them. It was the time of the Leitch report (2006), which stimulated more focus on the value of UK universities in building the skills of future, and set out what the Government could do to ensure the skills gap was closed by 2020.  The aim was that the proposed activities would lead to higher productivity and employment, which would in turn generate ‘significant economic and social benefits’.  

This gave Aston an opportunity to build on its strengths in placement education. But we had to make sure that placements were productive learning experiences. Many of my publications at the time attempted to maximise the effectiveness of organising placements (Higson and Bullivant, 2006) and helping students to engage with their work experience (Higson and Parkes, 2006). These were often from a practitioner standpoint and did not explore the wider issues of research-informed policy. Looking back, the relative naivety of this early work demonstrates that the field of employability was relatively poorly developed.

The employer angle

By 2010, I was very interested in the part played by employers in developing graduate employability. It seemed important to ensure that all partners – students, universities and employers – were engaged as much as possible in collaborating to create employable graduates. This led to studies looking at the part played by employers (McEwen et al, 2010 and Hall, Higson and Bullivant, 2010). It was further developed in an EU-funded project which looked at the roles of employers and business students across Europe (Azevedo et al, 2011).  The Wilson Review of 2012 allowed me to extend this approach. I was asked to co-write the chapter on skills for the Government’s review of business-university partnerships.  This led me to start working on research which would influence national policy. 

Policy at Aston and nationally

In the years being reviewed, the concept of the university’s role in producing employable graduates has become stronger. As the fee-regime changed, the case for the link between investment in students’ education and their subsequent contribution to the economy and society became strongly espoused. It was time to use our research to contribute to the debates on value added, attainment gaps, the role of universities in society, etc.  Our contributions included an important analysis showing that an integrated placement experience is the only significant variable in closing the degree attainment gap (Birdi, Moores, and Higson, 2017). It has challenged a large body of previous research which suggests that a placement year will automatically enhance a students’ academic performance (Driffield, Foster and Higson, 2011, and Jones, Green and Higson, 2015).  In this work we discovered that the more engaged and academically stronger students choose to undertake a placement, but that those students who are less engaged and less strong academically benefit most from taking one. Related to this, we needed to work out how we could get those latter cohorts of students to choose a placement year. This led to publications on how to influence student choice before they come to university (Higson and Andrews, 2014), and how to increase engagement amongst students. As a result, we appointed a pre-arrival careers advisor and integrated placement preparation into the first- and second-year curricula.

Redefining what employability is and its implications for practice

Everything changed in the year that our article on graduate employability, soft and hard skills was published (Andrews and Higson, 2008).  To this day, this paper is cited a few times a week. So, what was so ground-breaking? Firstly, it started the process of redefining employability as a more complex concept than previously considered – a combination of skills, competences, mindset, but also economic conditions.  Secondly, it discussed ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills, putting forward the argument that discipline-based technical skills were not enough to make students employable. They also needed to develop skills such as team working, decision-making, negotiating, presenting e.g., and that these were often best learned in the workplace.

We followed this up six years later, with a review of what was happening across Europe in terms of graduate employability (Andrews and Higson, 2014). We noted that the concept of partnership with employers and the embedding of soft skills via work experience had progressed, but that there were variable levels of development in different countries.The latest part of this journey has culminated in editing a special issue devoted to the discussion of the latest concepts of employability and their implementation in policy and practice across the world. Our introductory paper to this publication bears witness to greater awareness of the multi-facets which need to make up the definition of employability (Omolabake and Higson, 2021). As we say in the abstract of this paper, we are making two new contributions to the study of graduate employability:

First, drawing from existing literature, this introductory paper proposes three categorisations of employability as: outcomes approach, process approach and conceptual approaches. This moves beyond normative conceptualisation of employability from mostly the outcomes approach. The applicability of the categorisation is further enumerated … (a) the complexity in the field and (b) the interrelatedness of the categories.

Second, the special issue puts together a rarely combined collection of global perspectives on conceptualisations of employability … [and] illustrates the need to widen our scope of understanding employability beyond current dominant perspectives. The broadening that is required in employability discourses is further needed in view of unprecedented disruption brought on higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests the need to rethink our conceptualisations of employability admits uncertainty and potential disruption to the future of work.

In conclusion, it is clear that research into employability needs to continue to be produced with an open mind, and that the link to policy and practice has never been so important in this field. At Aston University, we will continue to be at the forefront of this important work.

See HEPI’s recent blog post, ‘On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Call to Action for the UK Higher Education Sector’ . Dr Uilleam Blacker from UCL shares how the UK can better support Ukrainian students and academics.

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