Students and employers alike need to know what makes them distinctive if they studied at a particular university.
The issue becomes particularly pointed if they studied in a specialist field such as creative arts, which is why we at the University of the Arts London are developing a memorable summary of what is special about its graduates. This is the sort of “elevator pitch” we expect to become increasingly common across higher education.
A regular justification for creative arts education is the role of its most successful beneficiaries in enriching society, making life more interesting, entertaining, rich and complex for the rest of us – which is nice and indeed true. Those of us who work in this field of education often broaden this point by highlighting the strengths of the creative sector and the role of our graduates within it.
However, we are seldom really precise about how a creative arts education enables future employment.
This may be because the concept of focusing on graduate employment still divides opinion at arts universities; some feel it misses the point of creative education and three or more years of intense study. It doesn’t help that employability can be hard to define and, when considering employing a recent graduate, “I know it when I see it” is an all too common approach.
As a consequence of this reticence, universities do too little to develop a clear understanding of the skills their students will have when they leave. Recent graduates will retire in 2060 (or even later), and we want them to be able to look back and pinpoint their time with us as a key reason for their success. But how do you prepare people for roles that don’t exist, in businesses which haven’t yet been conceived, solving problems yet to be identified? These questions apply as much to intellectual challenges as they do to the operation of businesses in the digital and robotic age.
Developing the employment skills and attributes of its graduates has been fundamental to education at UAL since it was founded 30 years ago. All UAL graduates can, for example, identify, explore and deliver complex projects and work across a number of roles simultaneously, because that is what we expect of them as students. We believe this prepares them for the on-demand, uncertain workplace that is now a reality for graduates who have to navigate the controversial gig economy. This labour market amounts to a continuous, rolling selection process – constantly pitching yourself, your skills and your ideas.
Tellingly, the concept of a “graduate brand” has genuine currency with students and employers. Buzzfeed and other social platforms, for example, are awash with “You Know You Went To X University If…” articles (such as this one), focusing on social life and urban myths. When we contacted industry, brands like Jack Wills, Estée Lauder and NotOnTheHighStreet.com were clear on what they expect from our creative graduates.
Employers, it turns out, don’t have a long shopping list. In fact, we found that lists of skills and areas of knowledge were not meaningful to our industry partners. Most find them too generic. They want to capture the essence of a UAL education – to understand the outcome in terms of aptitudes, attitudes and behaviours. And in any case, skills and roles are rapidly changing.
There are just three key ingredients in our students’ success, our industry partners told us. UAL students make things happen. They know how to showcase their abilities and accomplishments. And they deal well with change and uncertainty.
These three attributes are now the spine of our Creative Attributes Framework. This isn’t a branding exercise, and we aren’t retro-fitting the attributes to our curriculum. These attributes recognise what is already taught at the core of our creative education. This is what our graduates are really like – it is what our students really focus on.
This framework doesn’t in any way undermine academic rigour and creative potential. It complements both. It equips students with a better understanding of their education. And of course it deals with that awkward moment in the corridor or lift lobby when someone important wants to know, in less than 30 seconds, what our graduates are all about.
Simon Ofield-Kerr is deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of the Arts London