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Employability Blog Series: Driving change through strategy – a case study from the University of Sussex

  • 6 May 2022
  • By Emily Huns

The ninth in this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Emily Huns, Head of Careers and Entrepreneurship, University of Sussex and Susan Smith, Associate Dean (Education and Students), University of Sussex Business School.

The responsibility for closing graduate outcomes gaps for underrepresented student groups lies with universities. This is a message clearly conveyed by the Higher Education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), through Access and Participation Plan (APP) policy initiatives. The APP Dashboard exposes the graduate outcomes gaps that exist for (UK-domiciled) cohorts at each university in England. Universities must then outline, through their Access and Participation Plans, how they will close these gaps. 

Meanwhile, consultation on how to measure universities’ achievements on job outcomes most appropriately is ongoing, with metrics such as ‘Proceed’Graduate Outcomes and Longitudinal Education Outcomes attracting public discussion. Whatever metric is agreed upon, it is certain that universities will be judged on the employment outcomes of their graduates far into the future – by the regulator and by prospective students and their families through UK and international league tables. 

The policy focus on graduate outcomes is driving a seismic shift in thinking, teaching and learning practices, extra-curricular provision, partnering (internal and external) and resource allocation at universities in England. Universities must succeed in closing graduate outcomes gaps for underrepresented groups whilst ensuring all of their students – including often sizeable postgraduate and international cohorts – receive appropriate levels of support.

A case study from the University of Sussex

At the University of Sussex, our response to this policy focus has been an ambitious new strategy, launched in the 2019/20 academic year. The Sussex 2025 World Readiness and Employability Strategy inspires and steers investment and action on student employability support. The strategy launched after 18 months of research and co-creation with staff, students and employers. The vision is for all students to graduate ‘confident, knowledgeable and skilled, with clear career choices and real opportunities … ready to be citizens of the world – connected, civically and politically engaged, entrepreneurial and creative’. 

The Sussex APP Dashboards show graduate outcomes gaps for four undergraduate cohorts: students of Black Heritage, disabled students, mature students and students with home residency in an IMDQ1 (Indices of Multiple Deprivation Quintile 1) postcode. Whilst all students deserve and expect a core level of support and opportunity, some groups face additional hurdles and need enhanced, targeted provision. The Strategy commits, alongside other success measures, to closing the gap for these four APP groups by 2024/25.

Five interconnecting objectives

The Sussex World Readiness and Employability Strategy has five objectives, each underpinned by a strong research rationale. The relationship between these five objectives is key to impact. 

Strategic objective 1: Embedding employability into the curriculum

The evidence-led rationale for embedding employability into the curriculum is clearly expressed in AdvanceHE’s Framework for Embedding Employability. Embedding is the only route to ensuring every student graduates with the skills, experience and strategies needed. At Sussex, in line with this Framework, we are:

  • auditing programmes for employability content;
  • driving change through faculty-led action plans outlining annual priorities; and 
  • capturing and sharing good practice via an online toolkit.

The aim over time is for all students to gain experience, through the curriculum, in applying their skills and academic knowledge to real-world briefs, from designing a new product to addressing a community or business challenge. 

Strategic objective 2: Coherent extra-curricular support

As Advance HE concludes, ‘it is clear added value can be gained by facilitating students to engage in this process by multiple means and in a range of contexts’. The extra-curricular support offered by universities must complement and enhance in-curricula learning. At Sussex, alongside coherent core (and increasingly digital) provision for all students, we have developed two flagship schemes: the Sussex Career Lab and the Sussex Entrepreneurship Programme. Both programmes are open to all, but places are prioritised for our four APP target groups. 

The Sussex Career Lab is a menu of 800 opportunities across 15 activities (stepped by year group) to build skills, experience, employer connections and confidence. Recognising the opportunities likely to be most useful to underrepresented cohorts, activities include: connection to alumni role-models through a career mentoring scheme; paid virtual internships with businesses outside the UK; paid in-person internships local to the university; paid opportunities to become a student consultant to business; digital skills accelerators; and an inclusive leadership programme.

The Sussex Entrepreneurship Programme engages around 550 students annually. The programme honours the University’s ‘distinguished tradition of disruptive and experimental interventions’. Prioritising social innovation and sustainability, it enables the creation of around 30 newly registered student-founded businesses each year. Just as important, the programme upskills all participants in the entrepreneurial mindset and skills sought by graduate recruiters around the globe. 

Strategic objective 3: Co-creation with students and employers

At Sussex, a team of 200 ‘Student Connectors’ work in partnership with staff across the University to co-create support and learning content. Staff-student partnership activity has been linked to a variety of individual benefits, including motivation and learning, a sense of belonging, improved employability skillsengagement, and student outcomes and retention. Twenty-four of these ‘Student Connectors’ work together on employability and entrepreneurship provision. Connectors are selected from APP target groups. They were instrumental in the design of The Sussex Career Lab and Entrepreneurship Programme, as were a range of employer and entrepreneur partners from the local area.

Strategic Objective 4: Data-informed development

Within an increasingly heterogeneous student body, a one-size-fits-all approach to employability is neither desirable nor feasible. The University is mid-way through a project to better understand which support is most effective in improving employment outcomes and for whom. The project will further shape the current approach, which provides a suite of core support for all students and additional interventions for target groups to help close gaps in outcomes. Findings are enabling better decisions to be made about resource allocation with reduced investment in some areas of provision and expansion of others. Other data-driven developments are underway, too, notably a system to personalise employability messaging to students and a self-service dashboard to improve reporting to staff.

Strategic objective 5: Expansion of real-world opportunities

The data project mentioned above provides strong evidence for the positive impact of work experience on graduate employment outcomes. In 2021/22, the Sussex Career Lab Programme is providing 500 paid opportunities for students to complete a paid internship or work as a consultant for an employer. Scaling in this area of provision will continue to 2025. We are starting to integrate career management skills (such as CV-writing, interviewing and LinkedIn profile-building) as wrap-around support for these programmes to ensure students know how to showcase their experience in job applications. 

Two thirds of these opportunities are hosted by employers local to the University. Employers often hire Sussex graduates as a result of their participation in the Career Lab, which helps to retain graduate talent in the region. Similarly, the University’s student-founded startups are starting to create new local internship and graduate roles. Raising the number of highly-skilled employment opportunities for graduates in their home region is important to closing outcomes gaps for APP target groups and addressing the geographic inequalities flagged by the OfS.

These are some of the ways the University adds value to its community and better understands the needs of regional employers; insights that support involvement with the Sussex Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP) Trailblazer, an initiative outlined in the Department for Education’s Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth White Paper.

Concluding remarks

At Sussex, the World Readiness and Employability Strategy, enabled by ringfenced APP funding, is driving real change in opportunity for students, particularly underrepresented groups. In its second year, early signs of impact include encouragingly high engagement from APP target groups and the Sussex business community. Amongst University staff, employability-embedding is becoming more central to thinking, although we still have a lot to do and learn – from our students, employers and further research.

Meanwhile, the OfS’s 2021 Annual Review makes clear that sector policy will continue to prioritise work to secure equality of opportunity, raise quality of employability support and improve transparency on employment outcomes. The new Conditions of Registration referenced in the Review should further focus attention in universities on how employability learning can be most effectively embedded – within and in addition to the core curriculum.

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