The sixth in this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Dr Matthew Vince, HE Enterprise and Employability Coordinator, and Thea Jones, Deputy Head of Higher Education, at the University Centre South Devon.
With the steady expansion of approaches to employability, there has been increasing concern about the extent to which employability should be embedded within curricula. Although the field has focussed on a delineation between embedded and non-embedded approaches to employability, engaging students through different means and in a range of contexts seems to add significant value. We can see this approach adopted elsewhere, such as in the Gatsby Benchmarks which take a holistic approach to employability provision at school and Further Education level. Here, this is taken to mean an ‘integrated’ approach to employability: an approach which utilises both discrete and embedded modes for engaging students with employability.
Yet, questions remain about how employability practices manifest in this ‘integrated’ perspective, and who is responsible for it. The question of responsibility overlaps with other key themes and critiques, notably in terms of pedagogy, assessment, and academic integrity. However, such discussions tend to take a limited view of the ‘student experience’, typically reduced to experiences with career-related skills development, curricula, or employers. Specifically, it is rare for these discussions to consider the individuality of student experiences.
Accordingly, this blog offers an example of an ‘integrated’ approach to employability by framing it as a pastoral responsibility of the university. This sits alongside employability envisaged as a discrete area of activity or embedded within curricula. A pastoral approach builds on the student-centred ethos at University Centre South Devon (UCSD), which provides dynamic support across the whole of the student experience through a well-developed pastoral and tutorial system. Within this system, employability is understood as a form of pastoral support concerned with supporting the future goals and ambitions of students – an agency-centric concept – that sits alongside academic study, disability, and wellbeing support.
UCSD has close linkages with the FE sector as a partner of South Devon College – a valuable perspective for employability in HE. UCSD is a Higher Education Institution that is part of South Devon College: a medium-sized Further Education College in Torbay, Devon. UCSD, through South Devon College, was granted Foundation Degree Awarding Powers in early 2019 and, until 2021, held the Teaching Excellence Framework Gold award. In the 2020–2021 academic year, UCSD supported approximately 740 students on a range of Foundation Degrees, Bachelor Degrees, Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, and Higher National Certificates, across diverse curriculum areas to meet local needs.
Eighty per cent of UCSD’s students come from the local Torbay and South Devon postcode, with just 1.2 per cent of students coming from a non-Devon or Cornwall postcode. Torbay is ranked within the top 20 per cent most deprived local authorities in England and is the most deprived in the southwest on a range of income and employment deprivation measures.
This context highlights the importance of UCSD’s pastoral and tutorial system, which is conceptualised as holistic support for the entire student lifecycle to each of its 740 students. Many of UCSD’s students face barriers to their studies, with higher levels of socio-economic deprivation and a higher number of mature students. Informed by its close ties to FE, this system keeps a tutorial model, whereby HE students remain in tutor groups and are guided by their personal tutors, who are also leaders on their academic programmes. A tutorial curriculum accompanies this, with weekly sessions which cover themes linked to each of the pastoral areas in the Student Support Hub. The Hub, within which the Employability Coordinator sits, also supports students directly through one-to-one sessions and training workshops.
Building upon this commitment to support, employability provision at UCSD is built on two key aspects of students’ experiences. First, it recognises that achieving career-related goals are often a key motivation to embarking on a learning journey, and this journey starts before students arrive and continues long after their studies conclude. Due to the high number of mature learners at our institution, this is not just finding employment in the broadest sense, but in a lot of cases the students we support want to progress, or change, their career toward ‘higher level’ or ‘more skilled’ employment. The approach also acknowledges that the lives of students outside of these academic ambitions bring unique challenges and needs, which have become even more apparent in the context of COVID. So, framed in terms of this pastoral and tutorial system, employability is understood as a form of support, in this case supporting students’ future goals and ambitions. This has a start point and an end point, of which their academic journey is part.
From this pastoral ethos, employability activity at UCSD adopts a ‘bottom-up’ approach. This begins from the diverse needs of students – their own unique experiences, identities, and backgrounds, and the opportunities and barriers these bring. Work then centres on articulating where the student wants to get to, and how to get there, from their own positionality. This includes the skills and knowledge development from their academic studies as one aspect of this. This is opposed to top-down approaches which focus on articulating abstract skills and competencies that students are made to fit into. We can see such criticisms in the language of employability, in its blindness to the individual experiences of students.
This approach also brings employability into close proximity with many other teams, meaning employability forms part of the everyday fabric of the HE student experience. For example, through the tutorial curriculum, students learn about the needs of local employers alongside developing their referencing skills. Students are encouraged to visit the Hub for one-to-one disability support, map out their studies and future career plans, work together to build in training needs analyses and identify meaningful and accessible opportunities. Personal tutors and other pastoral teams also refer students to the Employability Coordinator just as they would refer students in other pastoral areas. The Employability Coordinator, as a member of staff working under the umbrella of support, can find it easier to proactively target individuals who may need guidance but not always have the confidence, or awareness, to come forward and know what sort of guidance they are after. Employability, then, becomes a vital part of supporting a student’s whole experience.
Framing employability as a pastoral responsibility of the university opens up powerful opportunities for reimagining the nature of employability itself. In particular, employability frameworks and competencies such as UCSD’s HE Employability Framework, adapted from AdvanceHE’s framework, become tailored to the needs of individual students, as part of a wider network of support. In doing so, this ‘integrated’ approach blurs the lines between academic, employability, and the other life experiences of students.
Taking this approach has several benefits. By attending to the experiences of students, it overcomes the tendency to depersonalise employability and notions of ‘the student experience’. The close proximity to other teams increases opportunities for quality engagements with students and in multifaceted ways, intersecting with other areas of pastoral support. Similarly, proximity to academic teaching teams, via the tutorial system, also encourages collaboration at a curriculum level. In this way, an ‘integrated’ approach to employabilityseems to overcome many of the barriers associated with binary embedded or non-embedded employability initiatives.
However, this approach requires significant support across HE institutions at all levels, a robust tutorial system and a well-supported pastoral team. Given the linkages between UCSD and the FE institution South Devon College, it is important to acknowledge that this approach extends into this space – a relationship not available to all institutions. Here, HE has learnt considerably from the insights of FE, especially around the maintenance of the pastoral needs of students in the transition from one level of study to another.