Lessons learnt from the QAA student employability theme

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Lessons learnt from the QAA student employability themeMarieke Guy, Data AnalystAnnual Reviewers Conference27th June 2016


While employers report strong demand for graduate talent, they continue to raise concerns about the skills and job readiness of too many in the graduate labour pool. Recent indications that the graduate earnings gap is in decline, and that significant numbers of graduates are going into non-graduate jobs, reinforce the need for action.

Fulfilling our Potential, BIS Green paper, November 2015

Employability as a concept is all over the news, mainly in regard to the skills of the graduates our institutions are producingCurrent reports: Employability reports

STEM degree provision and graduate employability: Wakeham review Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability: Shadbolt review

Early findings indicate variations across employers within sectors over their demands from pure technicians, to flexible team players, and all points in between. QAA Viewpoint: Graduate Employability

87% of graduates in employment (Graduate Labour Market Statistics, BIS, 2015)47% of graduates unprepared for work (Work Ready Graduates, 2015)2% drop in number of 21 to 30-year-old graduates in skilled work, compared to previous year (FT, April 2016)Graduate employment rates returned to pre-financial crisis levels but average graduate pay fallen to 31,500 (FT, April 2016)


Graduate employability

Buzzword/fuzzyDisliked by some students and academicsSoft skills; team working; communication; time management; confidence; attitudeInvolves engagement with staff, students and employersNeed for broader discourse

Demand from employers can be articulated in terms of broad graduate attributes, individual or groups of subjects, or specific skills acquired within subjects and programmes. These requirements may be associated with graduates in identified projects or programmes, levels of performance or qualification or aspects of the HE experience such as work placement and time abroad.

There are two areas in which the views of employers are consistent enough to inform educational policy on the level and nature of HE provision. Firstly, evidence suggests that employers consistently identify demand for STEM graduates, which arises from a broad requirement for numeracy and those specific technical skills. Secondly, employers are concerned about broad employability skills. In both cases, this perception derives from an expectation that there is a particular premium on these skills in the advanced and rapidly changing labour market of the future.

Evidence from employers suggests that concerns about graduate unemployment arising from the current economic climate will be short-term. Given the consistent message from employers about STEM and changing student aspirations in this area the government needs to ensure that student demand can be accommodated by an increase in provision. Employers also need to provide clear signals of the subjects, skills and attributes they particularly value, and that will position graduates most effectively in the labour market, to engage in the development and delivery of provision, for example through staff student placements.

There are some immediate areas of shortage, which can be identified at the level of skills required by specific employers and attributable to specific programmes in HE, such n-vivo techniques in the pharmaceutical industries and engineering skills required for nuclear industry. It should be possible for immediate skills requirements to be redressed through close working between individual and groups of employers,universities and colleges. This will, however, require responsiveness from HE providers, underpinned by public funding incentives, and employer funding at a level appropriate to the specificity of their requirements.

Employer demand, for the purpose of this work, is defined as the labour and skills required by employers, including business, academia, government and other sectors. Demand can be identified from employer surveys, labour market forecasts, or quantitative indicators such as salary or earnings data. Demand can be expressed in terms of a predicted shortage at some point in the future or an immediate and unfulfilled demand. It can be identified at national or regional levels, and framed in terms of sectors or occupations, rather than subjects in HE; demand may relate to specific courses and levels of study, or to skills attributable to one aspect of these. The link between an identified employer need and a subject or course within HE is rarely straightforward.

Importantly, employers are not a homogenous group. Research tends to capture the views of larger employers (or their representative bodies), which are able to respond to questionnaires and find the time to be interviewed. Employers views on what they need from HE varies by size of business and which level and type of manager is questioned3

UK Quality Code B4Enabling Student Development and Achievement

Chapter B4 requires that providers have in place, monitor and evaluate arrangements and resources which enable students to develop their academic, personal and professional potential.

B4 also offers a snapshot of how the sector develops employability skills and embeds employability into their strategies.


Employability themeStudent employability has been a theme in HER since 2013HER Findings 2014-15 - nearly 20% of the features of good practice relate to students' employabilityAPs showing real innovation in this area many features of good practice

Going forward employability has been chosen as the theme by all but 6 institutions so far in 2015 2016.5

Employability approaches


Embedding in the curriculumDeveloping programmes that meet the needs of industrySoft skills pervasive throughout a programme, delivered discretely, or designed-in to enhance a courseEmployability strategy e.g University of Essex.Graduate Training Assistant programme e.g. South Devon CollegeOffer student Personal Development Planning sessions

Embedding in the curriculum

Employability mentoring programme e.g. linking students directly with first-hand advice and guidance about the career or industry they are interested in. business development units and other commercial initiativesEmployability strategy e.g. University of Essex - The University's HER was published in December 2014. It found the University of Essex had made considerable efforts to implement a new Education Strategy across its departments and partners. This strategy is embedded in planning and quality assurance, something that contributes to six features of good practice identified by the review team. Improvements to the student experience in general, and the implementation of a new employability strategy in particular (specifically, the University's commitment to embed employer-focused learning in the curriculum), all contribute to a commendation for the enhancement of students' learning opportunities. An employability mentoring programme linking students directly with employers has provided an excellent opportunity for students to get first-hand advice and guidance about the career or industry they are interested in. Graduate Training Assistant programme e.g. South Devon College - Once enrolled, students have access to support from two officers dedicated to the development of academic and information-related skills, through drop-in sessions. Some assessment is done through 'real-life' activities supported through links in industry. The Research Showcase, inaugurated in 2013-14, brings together students, academic staff and businesses to present and discuss work-relevant research activity. Enhancement initiatives include the competitive Student Research and Employability Scholarships, worth up to 1,000, awarded to final-year students to enhance their academic and/or employability prospects. Successful students will present their achievements at the Research Showcase. Another initiative, the Graduate Training Assistant programme, offers workshop space, materials and resources to creative arts graduates who, in return, support undergraduates with aspects of their practical work. Key success factors for the good practice include the maintenance of close and current contacts with employers. Student feedback on the Research and Practice modules, combined with an annual work-based learning report, lead to ongoing enhancement. Soft skills can be pervasive throughout a programme, delivered discretely, or designed-in to enhance a course.


Working with local employersEngaging employers in quality assurance proceduresWork placements and paid internship e.g. AstonIndustry professionals who review and comment on the work of each student Guest speakers and professional networking eventsDrop in sessions and interview techniquesLong standing relationships with employers e.g. Conde Nash, UWELocal focus groups and surveys e.g. South Devon College - Step-up to HE summer programme

Working with local employersformally engaging employers in quality assurance proceduresdeveloping programmes that meet the needs of industry - for example, the construction and pharmaceutical industries and employers such as JCB, Siemens and British Engines Work placements and paid internship or a free postgraduate course for any graduate not in graduate-level employmentindustry professionals who review and comment on the work of each student Guest speakers professional networking events - monitoring research students' employability rates. While careers services offer advice and guidance, skills development and employment opportunities, some providers report that the uptake of these services can be variable. Yet, on the whole, the world of work is well embedded in students' education, something that is particularly evident in providers that chose the employability theme. Drop in sessionsInterview techniques - Performances in one institution are videoed for external examiners to assess and consider if they are not present.Long standing relationships with employers e.g. Conde Nash - At Conde Nash Publications for example, the future employability of students is at the heart of the programmes and is embedded in the college culture. And at the Princes Foundation for Building Community the review team reported that The employers who met the review team all had longstanding relationships with the Foundation and spoke enthusiastically about these relationships based on a shared commitment to encouraging the acquisition of a variety of skills and a holistic understanding of professional practice.Local focus groups and surveys e.g. South Devon College a 'Step-up to HE' summer programme - South Devon College - Its HER in December 2014 resulted in two commendations and eight features of good practice, including 'initiatives which link academic and employability skills through curriculum design and delivery'. South Devon is a HEFCE 'cold spot', signifying low participation in higher education. South Devon College is committed to working with local businesses to raise participation, retain local talent, and develop a graduate economy. The College builds close working relationships with local employers, including through focus groups and surveys, and involves them in programme design, approval and delivery. Many students arrive through vocational entry routes, and pre-entry support is provided for them. This includes a 'Step-up to HE' summer programme and an extended two-week induction programme offering a range of Academic Skills development workshops.8

Good practice case studiesRoyal School of Needlework. BA (Hons) Hand Embroidery for Fashion, Interiors, Textile Art. Photographer: Tas Kyprianou.


Good practice examplesEmbedding key graduate attributes into coursesClose cooperation between careers and placements teamsIndustry experience as a requirement of staff recruitmentEvents that help to network students into particular industries.


Good practice case studiesRoyal School of NeedleworkUniversity of GloucesterRavensbourneSouth Devon CollegeUniversity of Essex


Providers encouraged toAgree strategic approach Develop practical support and advice for students e.g. CV writing, mock interviews, presentation support.Engage with employers on course design, programme reviews, guest lecturingRun networking eventsOffer work placements, internships and mentoring. Shift work element of sandwich course to endConsider information collection and analysis to gauge success, alumni workNurture soft skills and confidence building




Employability challengesTensions between what employers and providers want Changing work environment, employers not homogeneous groupDifficult to link identified employer need and course Trying to speak the same language (staff, students, employers) perceptions, interpretationsVariations in technical or theoretical innovationConsistency reaching all studentsChallenges of real-world activity e.g. costs

From HEA employability framework. Critical scholars have also noted that employability discourses encourage would-be workers to construct and identify withidentities that are determined by the values of corporate managers. As these change from organisation to organisationand over time, and are not based on the core values of individuals themselves, the process and experience can be alienating. So whatis sold to students and job-seekers as a form of empowerment may actually be quite the opposite (Cremin, 2010).

To truly prepare students to enter the employment market, it is important to discuss these issues fully and openly. Knowledgeabout employee rights, explorations of personal values, and critical analysis should also have a place in this process. Otherwise, werisk encouraging students to believe that becoming and staying employed requires turning themselves into products thatconform to ever-changing market desires, which is certainly not a concept that should be left unchallenged.14

Questions for discussionHow can providers be encouraged to continue to develop a strategic approach to employability? How can employability be better embedded in programme design? How can providers be supported in information collection to gauge success?How can the insights found through this thematic area feed in to other areas for development, such as widening participation?




Quality Enhancement Network Employer Engagement, Employability and Higher Apprenticeships Three locations: 18 May 2016 - Kingston College23 May 2016 - Coventry University25 May 2016 - Manchester CollegeOutputs can be shared with subscribers


Other ResourcesSkills for employability (QAA)Enterprise and entrepreneurship guidance (QAA) Education for sustainable development: Guidance for UK higher education providers (QAA)Employability Initiatives in Universities and Colleges (QAA, Warwick, AGR)Student employability profiles (HEA, CIHE)Employability framework (HEA)Employability booklet (jobs.ac.uk)



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