- This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Professor Pat Tissington, Academic Director (Employability and Skills) at the University of Warwick and Dr Pat Mertova, Consultant in Higher Education and Policy at the Associates in Higher Education Policy, Development and Quality (AHEPDQ).
The Skills Gap (the mismatch or gap between the skills required in current vacancies and skills possessed by people looking for work) and the Skills Shortage have become part of the everyday narrative in UK politics driven by employment data and unfilled vacancy data that show large numbers of unfilled vacancies and low productivity. Some employers have complained about university graduates not possessing ‘work-ready’ skills. At the same time, other employers of graduates have demonstrated that they value the skills that graduates bring by the simple fact that they employ thousands of them every year largely in areas unrelated to the disciplines graduates studied.
One cause of the Skills Gap may be that universities are often unable to point out to students where they have developed particular skills beyond academic skills, and subsequently, students are confused about or simply unable to articulate the skills they developed during their studies. Another may be that employers expect graduates to possess particular skills and understand what employers’ expectations are in particular areas or industries.
For several decades universities have been encouraged by the government to highlight ‘transferable skills’ defined as academic skills for study being relevant to skills for work. Resulting from the debates and pressure from various stakeholders, most universities have developed sets of clearly articulated graduate skills, sometimes referred to as graduate attributes or employability skills. This was to demonstrate, in particular to the government, but also to employers and students, their value for money and contribution to the economy. In 2008, the university sector started adding the so-called Higher Education Achievement Report (outlining the skills students developed during their studies) alongside students’ academic transcripts. This effort soon stalled, as there was no evidence employers engaged with this site in the process of graduate recruitment despite its popularity with students.
We can take the example of the University of Warwick, a university with a loosely federated academic structure. There, skills are developed through the individual disciplines rather than developing a set of more generic skills across the entire institution. This led to differences in students’ understanding of skills across disciplines and in many cases, students were unaware of the skills they had been exposed to.
The need to find ways to highlight the skills that students develop was identified in a review of teaching and learning in 2017. This then led to an important first stage of defining skills and related terms in the attempt to improve students’, lecturers’ and other stakeholders’ understanding of skills that students were developing at the University. There were questions around: What do we mean by employability? What do we mean by skills? What are the core skills? To what extent do students already acquire these skills – bearing in mind how popular graduates are in the employment market anyway? How do we help students understand what skills they have and then acquire the skills they do not have?
Subsequently, in 2019, the University set out to create a suite of Core Skills that their students would develop across all disciplines and additionally individual disciplines could develop their discipline-specific skills. The agreed approach was that the basis for Warwick Core Skills (WCS) would be solid academic evidence combining a literature review with a critique of sets of skills used in other institutions. The University first commissioned researchers from the Institute for Employment Research at Warwick (IER) to review current research, employability frameworks and approaches of other universities in developing employability skills in their students, and draw together a suite of core skills for the University.
In September 2019, IER produced a report including a suite of proposed core skills for Warwick. This report was then reviewed by Warwick Education Executive, and between October and mid-November two “town-hall” style meetings involving employers, internal stakeholders (such as Warwick Skills Team, Careers, international and others), external stakeholders as well as students to gain feedback on the proposed suite of core skills were organised. At the end of November 2019, the report was presented to Warwick Education Committee for approval. The process was therefore time-consuming, but there is now a framework that makes sense to students. This framework is the basis for a comprehensive employability skills programme where students can achieve The Warwick Award, if they have presented evidence of skills gained in taught modules, through experience in a range of co-curricular activities or from work experience.
The success of this project will be measured over a long period, not least as it depends on the smoothness with which Warwick graduates move into the workplace. Early indications are of a step-change in the awareness of students of the skills they need for work and where they can gain these at university. The key is to explain the language skills that make sense to students and link easily to competencies that employers use in competencies frameworks for graduate entry.
This may not always sit comfortably with academics, who are understandably cautious about the imposition of standardised elements in their carefully designed programmes. So, it is important to keep the definitions succinct with sufficient detail for broad understanding but allowing for nuanced interpretation. The resulting framework is necessarily less tightly defined than workplace competencies but allows the graduate applicant to speak the same language of skills used by their potential employers. For Warwick, this is still the start of the journey, but as it seems, a successful one. It is hoped that this short reflection can offer some helpful suggestions to other institutions who might be also looking for more effective ways of engaging their students with employability skills and effective ways in which to help their students articulate these to their future employers.