The eighth in this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Saskia Loer Hansen, Interim Vice Chancellor and Professor Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor, Aston University.
Over recent months we have received news of proposed changes to metrics used by the Office for Students, the contents of Access and Participation Plans, and the determination of the TEF. Although the detail of the changes varies, there is a common theme to them all. HEIs are required to show how they make a positive impact to student outcomes. How can that positive impact be achieved?
The first element of success for a university student is the achievement of a degree. Having a degree in itself is not the distinguishing factor it was several years ago, so the degree classification matters more. Here, we see disparity of achievement. Students from POLAR Quintile 1 (with the lowest participation in HE) are 8.6 per cent less likely than those in POLAR Quintile 5 (with the highest participation in HE) to achieve a first or a two-one.
There are also differences in attainment amongst students from different ethnic groups, with the number of Black students achieving a first or a two-one being 17.4 per cent lower than for White students.
How much does degree classification matter? A report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency looked at the difference in the attainment gap between different groups of students, and then looked at what impact this has on graduate earnings. It looked at a cohort of students born in 1990 and found the salaries of those with a two-two were, on average, 10 per cent lower than those with a two-one or a first.
Even though the degree classification might not be a direct passport to a graduate job, it is still an important hurdle. Overall, there has been a steady increase over recent years in the number of students being awarded a first or a two-one in their undergraduate degree. It is not enough to have a two-one or a first class degree (a challenge for some students in itself), now students must also be able to show they have engaged in additional activities to demonstrate their fit with a graduate job. In other words, they need to develop employability skills.
The challenge for universities is not only how to ensure students reach their potential in terms of degree performance, but also how to give students the extra experience and confidence, which will make them stand out in a crowded job market.
Additional activities are not just required to pad out a CV, but they are also an important way of developing employability skills. Research by Milner et al (2016) looked at undergraduate perceptions of the impact extra-curricular activities have on developing employability skills. They found extra-curricular activities significantly correlated with other employability related aspects of the student experience. However, students reported it was often difficult to find the time to engage in activities outside of academic work and paid employment.
A large study in Taiwanese business schools found students who had been core members of extra-curricular activities were more likely to positively evaluate their communication, leadership, creativity and self-promotion skills. These are all skills valued by employers, and an essential part of the ‘employability kit’.
The value of engaging in extra-curricular activities is probably hard to dispute, but why do some students not engage in them? One frustration often expressed by those who run extra events is poor attendance and that the students who really need the additional input are the ones who do not attend.
Creating module partnership
At Aston University we have been focused on ‘getting on, not just getting in’ for many years, as evidenced by us being second in the English Social Mobility Index for the last two years. An example of how we have focused on the ‘getting on’ comes from our work with postgraduate students. It was decided to create a Business Clinic in the Business School, with local organisations putting forward real issues they were facing, which would be solved by groups of students with academic staff acting as mentors. An opportunity to gain consultancy experience in this way was expected to be hugely popular, but in reality, a very small percentage of eligible students engaged. In the same way, when an opportunity was created with a local charity to mentor disadvantaged young people who wanted to start a business, the number of postgraduate students who came forward to engage was very small.
Why? Informal research amongst the postgraduate students found that time commitment was the most common barrier to engagement in extra-curricular activities. Students were finding the demands of their degree sufficiently time-consuming. So, the solution had to be to embed the extra-curricular activities within the degree to reduce the need for extra time and to make the activities compulsory.
Module partnership was created. Businesses were asked to identify an issue they needed to solve. This was matched with a module, and the module leader was asked to incorporate the business issue into their teaching of the module. The assessment of the module included the requirement for students to give their solution to the issue, and the student who put forward the best solution received a placement of at least four weeks with the organisation.
Taking this approach forced students to engage with something which might otherwise have been ‘extra-curricular’, and gave them some real examples of business focused work which they could talk about at job interviews.
While the pandemic has delayed the further development of module partnerships, anecdotal evidence from students so far is positive.
Is the approach of putting these extra activities in the degree itself necessary if we are to improve the employability skills of all students, particularly those who might come from more disadvantaged backgrounds? To answer the question, we need to understand why students do not engage in extra-curricular activities.
Research published by the Social Mobility Commission looked at the engagement of children in extra-curricular activities. They found that children from the poorest households were much less likely to engage in extra-curricular activities, particularly music and sport. The reasons for this were the cost of activities, young people not participating because they did not know they could, and the feeling that they would not ‘fit in’ if they did engage.
Although this research was carried out with children, the findings could be applicable to university students. If university students from disadvantaged backgrounds have not engaged with extra-curricular activities as children, they are less likely to have the confidence to engage once they enter a university. They might perceive that they will not ‘fit in’ compared with students who have engaged in a wide range of activities throughout their childhood.
This argument fits with the thought-provoking article from Jim Dickinson in which Jim argues that it is wrong to presume that ‘getting in’ to University implies a readiness to get on. He argues that there is a need to spend time, particularly in the first term, supporting students in understanding what they need to do to be successful at university.
The Government’s levelling up agenda drives universities to think about access to university, but also to think about equality of opportunity once a student is in university. However, providing equal opportunities to achieve a good graduate outcome is not just about achievement within the university setting. Gaining the broad range of skills which comes from participating in a variety of extra-curricular activities develops employability skills which will be crucial for students throughout their careers.
In addition to offering equal opportunity to achieve a good degree outcome and engagement in extra-curricular activities, universities also need to support students in articulating what they have achieved. This is an important additional challenge, to ensure that students can speak confidently to a prospective employer and can link their achievements to competencies sought by the employer.
Research by the Sutton Trust has questioned the fairness of the personal statement, arguing that students from less advantaged backgrounds struggle more to articulate what they have achieved, and have less opportunity to list a range of extra-curricular achievements. The same inequality can be perceived when students go on to apply for jobs if they are not taught how to articulate what they have achieved in their university career. One essential part of developing employability skills, therefore, is teaching students how to articulate experiences and success.
Perhaps a part of the solution going forward is to work with schools to deliver confidence-building extra-curricular activities, which might increase the likelihood of students engaging with these activities once they enter university. This reflects the need to continue strong partnership working between schools, colleges and universities in not just getting students into university, but also in supporting them to get on and go further after graduation.
There is not one solution to equipping students with the employability skills they need to have great graduate outcomes. It requires a broad range of activities, including degree content and extra-curricular activities, as well as the ability of students to successfully articulate what they have achieved to a prospective employer.