Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Beyond employability

  • 3 April 2023
  • By Dr Doug Cole and Jon Down

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Dr Doug Cole, Associate Director – Academic at Nottingham Trent University (@DougFCole), and Jon Down, the Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes, which delivers intensive personal development and coaching in UK universities (@grit_2017).

As the access and participation agenda moves beyond broadening the range of young people getting into university, the focus falls on the institutional readiness to support an increasingly diverse student body: to fit the university offer around the work, family and personal commitments of learners and to create an equitable experience for international, commuter, mature, first-in-family and the myriad of other ‘non-traditional’ students. 

Similarly, with an increasingly heterogenous student population, conventional notions of what it means to belong to a university are diverging: one size no longer fits all. The upsurge of digital methods of learning, sparked by COVID, has shown the potential for student-centred approaches and practices to work with learners as individuals, approaches that celebrate diversity, promote equality and inclusive learning. 

Graduate readiness

It is not enough just to support graduates into a specific job, we know a job is no longer for life. Students now are having to think beyond linear careers and into parallel careers (a series of simultaneous, often fixed-term or zero-hours roles). Job hunting is no longer a period between employment but is likely, at some level, to be a continuous process with some form of unemployment permanently on the horizon. Remote working and the advance of AI will continue to challenge established notions of the workplace itself and how it operates. Graduate readiness, then, has become about preparing students to navigate a complex and shifting world, much more about the kind of people we are and will develop into, rather than simply ‘what we should know or can technically do.’

Self-efficacy and an increased sense of agency is central. Supporting students to spot and take opportunities must be a crucial part of what higher education is all about. Making informed choices that are right for them only comes with a real understanding of who they are and who they want to be. It comes with clarity about what they really want to achieve in their lives, and that self-belief that they can achieve it. It is about students as active participants in their university experience rather than passive recipients. In the words of an NTU student, ‘university is like an all you can eat buffet. It’s up to you to choose what is right for you.’

Equally key is supporting students to recognise that they have the behaviours, attitudes, values, knowledge, technical skills and experience that are important for their futures and what employers tell us they need. There is  lifewide learning: ‘allowing students to come as they are, and value and validate the experiences and knowledge that they bring with them.‘ Students are already confidently navigating complex conversations around who they want to be: their ownership of the climate change agenda; the debates around gender and racial identities; the acknowledgement and ownership of mental health and wellbeing issues. COVID has seen them demonstrate an adaptability and resilience greater than previous generations. They bring a rich range of life-wide experiences from outside formal education, experience and learning from the extracurricular and beyond: taking part in sport, volunteering, part-time work, caring for family members. All of this creates a much more holistic view of learning, developed around social capital, complex consumer decision making, digital literacies from a whole range of cultures and sub cultures, personal qualities and capabilities, all of which have enabled them to not only get to university in the first place but that will also continue to help them flourish beyond their studies.

There is clearly what students get from the academic journey: knowledge, technical skills, flexible and creative thinking, engaging with multiple cultures and encounters, developing their adaptability and much more. 

The challenge lies in ensuring that students recognise, reflect, articulate and are able to unpack the depth and value of all of these aspects of learning gained through these varied experiences. It is only by supporting students to recognise and articulate the uniqueness of who they really are, their vision of where they want to be, and the contribution they have to bring to the workplace and their communities, that we can then support them to become truly graduate ready, prepared for now and equipped to keep evolving for what comes next.

Putting it into practice

Employability, is a complex, lifelong process, a journey of discovery that has to be much more than a single workshop, placement experience or mentoring experience. It should be about the whole person curation of academic curricula and the ad hoc nature of students’ independent study and lives, about both personal and professional development. It is multi-dimensional, so to make it deliverable at scale needs a single, flexible, holistic and inclusive curriculum scaffolding that enables course teams to incorporate or signpost to all these different dimensions of student development and learning. This task requires a set of principles that inform a way of working across the whole university, embedding this learning in the curriculum design processes. And it needs a consistent, common way of articulating it, a common language across an institution, subject areas and between all stakeholders.

Fundamentally this is about culture change: developing our understanding of ‘employability’ and an appropriate  underpinning approach, our perspective and view of our relationship with students as co-creators of the student journey (as opposed to the handing down of information, knowledge and a set of ambiguous skills). This shifts us into the territory of coaching capabilities and the exploration of the ‘whole student’ – supporting learners to reflect across their study programmes and lifewide learning so they recognise, contextualise and make sense of how new knowledge and experience relates to the bank of collateral they have already accumulated. This is very different to ‘teaching’.

But, and crucially, this is not just for employability or employment. By taking this more holistic view of learning and what really matters in practice, we are simultaneously tackling multiple strategic agendas (retention, attainment, progression, wellbeing and sustainability too). Working more collaboratively as the norm, rather than in parallel, we need to break down what can often be siloed agendas to create interdisciplinary teams, uniting the wealth of knowledge and experience across institutions.

The broader student experience is the lens here too. Self-efficacy and resilience isn’t just for a job, it’s for life! These dimensions of learning we are highlighting, in combination, also underpin these multiple strategic agendas. Reflection, empathy and emotional intelligence are again all essential if we are to bring about meaningful change and deliver on these crucial issues. 

When students are able to recognise and celebrate the true depth of their learning, understanding how this all fits together, they see new possibilities for who they could become in the world. They are then much better positioned to find the career path that works for them, one that leads them on to a thriving and successful life. 

Social mobility becomes an experience rooted in their own selves, from a new way of seeing the world, the value they can bring and their place within it. This approach provides  meaning at the level of the institution, the course and the individual student, and creates foundations for learning and flourishing  in a way that league tables, destination data and salary levels can never do. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *