The fourth in this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Professor Catherine O’Connor, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and Experience, Leeds Trinity University.
There has been an ever-sharper focus from Government that a degree should mean a transition to highly-skilled employment. This was reinforced in late November 2021 with the announcement that universities would be asked to rewrite their Access and Participation Plans with a shift in focus ‘from intakes to outcomes – real social mobility’.
This blog explores the drivers for an institutional change project at Leeds Trinity University (LTU) around its placements and work-based learning in the context of this policy environment and recent research. This shows graduates from poorer backgrounds earn half as much as their more privileged peers in their first job after graduating, because they do not put themselves forward for as many roles and do not have the family connections and financial support to search for top jobs. Such evidence is highly relevant to LTU, a small institution with a number of UK franchise partners and a significant focus on widening participation.
Institutional Change Project
LTU has always embedded credit-bearing placements within undergraduate (UG) degrees, with students traditionally going out to the workplace at the end of their first and second years of study, as well as having the option to undertake a work-based project in their final year. The change project involves making the Level 4 placements optional and shorter and framing them as an introduction, and Level 6 work-based projects a core module for all students, whilst keeping six-week placements at Level 5. These changes build work-based learning and connectivity into every level of study, framed in a strong transitional journey throughout UG programmes and into the labour market. Students are supported to take greater ownership of how they map their employability journey, have means to address workplace confidence at Level 4, and further develop their networks and employability through compulsory Level 6 work-based projects.
Drivers for change
Placements are delivered in partnership with a network of more than 3,000 employers, with a focus on students as individuals. They help to develop a wide range of skills and behaviours but, more importantly, provide a clear process for students to go through to build these attributes with an accompanying impact on their graduate capitals. For an institution which welcomes more than 60 per cent of students who are first in their family to attend university, the development of social, cultural and identity capitals is of particular significance.
The LTU 2021-2026 strategy positions the institution as career-led with a clear aim to have graduates leave with skills passports to take into their chosen careers. Along with this, there were three further drivers for this change project:
- Institutional data, feedback and experience which highlighted that a significant number of Level 4 students found engaging with the first placement challenging, either because of uncertainty about their career pathway or because of lack of confidence
- The ‘gap’ at Level 6 in terms of work-place connectivity, learning and development for students who did not undertake the work-based project
- Feedback from employers about the benefits of being able to work with final year students who can contribute more to the workplace and gain greater value from the experience
The value of choice at Level 4
In making this change, LTU is providing for Level 4 students who are ready to undertake an external placement; equally, it is ensuring that students who are not ready to go out to industry have the opportunity to develop their networks, attributes and apply knowledge and skills through the completion of a Professional Challenge Project. This will engage them with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), focussing on deprivation, inequality and environmental issues, and provide a key platform to address issues of social justice, and other agendas which can have local and community impact in the Leeds City Region. Students will choose two of four challenges offered and work in small groups with the support of a coach. To signify the importance of professional, community and place-based connections, the project will seek to draw coaches from across academic and professional service areas of the University, taking a ‘whole institution’ approach.
The project will engage students with many of the same skills and behaviours as a placement – team-working, communication, sector understanding, consideration of how discipline and broader skills can be applied – but they will undertake this work on campus in close collaboration with peers and university staff. They will also have agency through elements of co-creation and choice. Importantly, it will allow students to explore skills and issues in a broader context, moving them away from feeling like they have to ‘fix’ on a particular placement or pathway at the start of their degree if they are not ready. With its focus on issues and challenges which exist in the Leeds area and are relevant to the UNSDG, the project seeks to support students in authentic and connected learning. The aim is that the breadth of opportunities included will support an increased understanding of graduate career pathways and inspire students to be active and impactful citizens.
Whether students seek to undertake an industry placement or the Professional Challenge Project, they will be drawing and applying their learning from their first year of study, laying the foundations for professional development through their Level 5 placement and, eventually, their final year Professional Learning through Work Project.
Final year agency and ownership
By shifting to a Professional Learning Through Work Project for all students at Level 6, the University is situating this as the capstone in all UG degrees, with final year students required to:
- Negotiate a specific project with an employer or other relevant organisation, the objectives of which are approved by the university, and which is researched, delivered and evaluated by the student.
- Identify the intended outcomes for the project, along with the methods and approach for delivering them.
- Situate the project in the context of professional good practice and relevant literature.
- Evaluate the final project against the agreed objectives and consider lessons learned, and recommendations for future projects.
In this regard, the Professional Learning through Work Project can be regarded as the culmination of a personalised approach which seeks to incrementally develop graduate capitals. It speaks to key aspects of the connectedness learning model in that it involves authentic work-based learning through real professional contexts which require students to interact with professionals, take responsibility through co-design and delivery of a ‘product’.
Clearly, every stage and aspect of these changes will need to be tracked and evaluated as they are rolled out. However, this approach is considered to have two key strengths – firstly, the ability to understand and accommodate student perceptions of their readiness for the workplace through either the Level 4 optional placement, or the Professional Challenge Project, and secondly, the opportunity for Level 6 students to be immersed in authentic employer driven, real-world projects through a final capstone module with flexible assessment. Evaluating key touchpoints across all three levels of undergraduate programmes will allow us to track and review the journey to graduate outcomes throughout every year of each degree. Most importantly, this will enable the institution to provide an incremental, integrated and personalised graduate employability journey for its students, while also addressing related policy and audit agendas.
On Thursday 31 March 2022, HEPI – with support from the University of St Andrews – is publishing a major new paper on the relatively low level of understanding of China in the UK, measured, for example, by the number of school pupils studying Mandarin or the number of undergraduates on Chinese Studies programmes. On the day of publication, we are hosting a webinar to discuss the issues. To register for a free place, please click here.