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Students from lower ranked universities have no way of combating employers’ preferences. So should more be done to help?
A while ago, I settled down to mark mock applications for jobs, postgraduate certificates in education and other postgraduate study from all the third-year English literature undergraduates at the University of Cumbria, before passing them over to colleagues in the careers service for feedback and discussion. That strange vibrating sound that may have just crept into your consciousness is the spinning in their graves of a century and a half’s worth of advocates for the place of English in the university curriculum. It might seem to those who admire the work of such advocates – or the work of today’s many sharp critics of universities’ direction of travel based in literature departments – that there is nothing less worthy of credit on an English literature degree course than writing a job application. It’s instrumentalism gone mad. What price the utopian promise of literary pedagogy within the university – the vital capacity not only for the text to surprise the student, but for the student to surprise the lecturer?
Sellar and Yeatman, in their 1066 And All That, tell us that the English Civil War was fought between the Cavaliers (“Wrong but Wromantic”) and the Roundheads (“Right but Repulsive”). Resisting the employability agenda can mean that you end up not only with instrumentality but the Repulsive kind; imposed, box-ticking, a tokenistic presence on the curriculum, anti-discipline. The compromise adopted by many departments works reasonably well. Respecting the historic locus of careers and employability expertise, departments work with careers services to publicise the support they provide, as well as discipline-specific events or resources. It is perfectly possible for a student to avoid engaging with any of this and still fulfil her potential within the discipline.
And thereby hangs a tale. If you work, as I do, in a university explicitly set up with a widening participation remit, it means that your students begin with not only a very wide range of prior achievement but a variable grasp of the component parts of cultural capital that lead, among other things, towards graduate employment. There is no point in addressing the one without addressing the other. Some academics, having bigger fish to fry, have been known to dismiss widening participation as merely the token inclusion of underprivileged individuals. I’d argue that it is a proper function of the university department to provide students with the opportunity to think through their own self-development and employment aspirations collectively, individually and in relation to their chosen discipline. But to solve this particular conundrum academic staff need to give students not just the opportunity but the motive and the means.
So, the mock job application I began with has at least three essential pre-conditions for its place on the curriculum. First, it must be compulsory and be based on classroom teaching from careers staff. These days, universities expect students to learn with one another, to share ideas and expertise, and to challenge and probe received wisdom; and yet the dominant model for students’ engagement with careers and their own employability is not the symposium but the private client. Little wonder that for those who prefer to learn collectively a trip to the careers service can feel like a visit to the dentist. Second, the final year must be supported by a “long tail” of employability-enhancing activities in previous years, again compulsory. There is no point in presenting students with a stressful new activity in a year that will decide their degree classification if they don’t already have a narrative for this activity (“in your third year you will…”) and experience in successfully negotiating new demands on their intellectual and personal resources. Third, the “owners” of the discipline’s curriculum and its assessment are central. Academic staff must buy in and work collaboratively with the expertise of the careers service to model for students a disciplinary identity that explicitly encompasses employability.
So far as motive goes, the key is to remember that engaging with employability is an intellectual challenge. We ask our students to think as hard about their career as they do about literary texts; that’s why I mark their work with, rather than outsource it to, the careers service. A good application for a graduate job is not merely a matter of technique. You need to reflect on your own skills, experience and career aspirations to find a matching job; you need to research sector, role and company; you need to understand some deceptively complex discursive contexts; and in covering letters you need to be able, in effect, to construct an evidenced argument for your being shortlisted over other candidates also meeting minimum requirements.
English literature students should be very good at mastering and critically engaging with this discourse, but they often need help to connect it to their “real” disciplinary identity before they can do so. Cumbria’s degree itself involves a range of assessed activities asking students to apply their subject knowledge in different contexts – making MP3 mock-radio programmes about poetry, designing an alternative landing page for a local literary heritage website, participating in online discussion boards about Renaissance poetry, reflectively rereading a text from their first year in their second.
The mock job application is the latest in a long line of problems to solve, and is followed by several months’ work on a “real-world” project that may or may not involve paid work (think of it as the students constructing a non-exploitative internship and gaining academic credit for doing so).
In the final year, fulfilling your academic potential and putting some vita into your vitae are one and the same. It’s not possible to succeed at one without doing the other. For the widening participation student, and perhaps many others, utopian thinking about the English literature experience can lead to nowheresville; for such students, our approach may well be just Right (and even, just a little, Wromantic).
Stephen Longstaffe is senior lecturer in English at the University of Cumbria.
There is a certain point in each academic year when, according to a friend who recently graduated from the University of Cambridge, students at Oxbridge colleges are sent mugs containing cash. Companies long ago realised that the most efficient way to reach highly sought-after Oxbridge graduates was to win their attention with eye-catching antics before they had even finished their degrees.
It brings to mind an assembly I attended in Year 12 during which my school’s deputy head took it upon herself to tell my year group that going to university was a waste of time for anyone not attending a “top 20” university and graduating with a first.
Five years later, having only just landed a “real job” after months of applications, I am forced to accept that there may be some truth in this. For employers, the safest bet is always going to be the student who can prove a history of academic excellence – the kind of person who evolves from a prospective Russell Group student into a Russell Group graduate. Selecting students from the universities lower down the rankings (my own university, Brunel, sits at 52 in The Guardian’s league tables) is simply riskier, especially in companies that see academic ability and success as indicative of work ethic and intelligence.
There are always going to be some exceptions. Brunel is known for its design courses, for example, and its graduates in this subject have a high job-after-graduation rating. My own degree, English and creative writing, was ranked sixth in the country in The Guardian’s university 2015 league table (beaten only by Cambridge, University College London and the universities of Durham, St Andrews and Oxford), but that seems to mean little to most employers. Brunel English graduates are statistically less likely to get a graduate-level job than those from the next 10 universities listed in the table.
Students from lower ranked universities have no way of combating employers’ preferences, so should more be done to help? I know from personal experience that a big problem in my application process has been exactly that – the application process. During my degree, I never had to write a CV or cover letter, I never had to apply for a “real” job and, although I have interned in the past and have published pieces of journalism, I do not have a portfolio, or even the skills to create one that would make me stand out to any potential employers above Oxbridge and redbrick graduates. Maybe I should have gone to speak to the university’s careers counsellors; but friends of mine who had done so told me that although the counsellors were very helpful and friendly, there was nothing in place to help people work their way into specific industries.
Several courses at Brunel put specific emphasis on the career development and employability of their students, but the same could not be said of English. Friends of mine studying design complained to me in the past because, for their coursework, they had to write a mock job application. Looking back, I wish that I had been so lucky. Their compulsory module in career progression may well have been exactly the sort of thing that has contributed to the 28 percentage point gulf in job-after-graduation statistics that separates my course from theirs; add to that a general trend that sees most design students taking a placement year as part of their accredited degree and it is easy to see why students on this course appear to be so much more employable.
There was an optional module on my course called Creative Writing and the Creative Industries; I chose not to study it and instead opted for Benjamin Zephaniah’s Performance Poetry course. I might not make the same choice now; hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Although it might not be a popular choice, I honestly feel that if students at mid- to bottom-of-the-league-table institutions were made to study career progression, this might be the best way to fight back against the employment statistics that currently favour those lucky enough to have made it to a “top 20” university.
Many companies still make use of unpaid internships, but for most recent graduates it just isn’t practical to spend months working for free. If that unpaid internship had formed a part of a four-year, one placement-year course, then would it be different? I was lucky in that I found the time in my second and third years to supplement my degree with extracurricular writing and a part-time internship at a small, independent magazine, but most people I know did not have the time to fit in that kind of “work” around the academic timetable and paid work. What if, as an English and creative writing student looking to work in either publishing or journalism, I had completed a year working for a local newspaper or magazine? Some universities offer such opportunities – for example, in 2008, the University of Surrey set up a BA in English literature that includes an optional professional training year.
As for the friend who complained about his tutor’s insistence that 30 per cent of the mark on one of his industrial design modules would be based on the quality of his cover letter, he recently admitted that it might have been a good idea after all. When you are at university you have a different kind of mentality – yes, there is a worry that at some point you will have to get a job, but it’s not an immediate worry. That changes on graduation day. To students who moan about having to get up for a placement that starts at 9am each day, I say trust me. And to every graduate who is currently being turned down based on a lack of experience – remember that your placement is probably one of the best things your course will offer you.
Bryn Glover graduated from Brunel University London in July last year.
Employability initiatives: more than just box-ticking
Employability skills have become an expected part of a modern university degree and are a key focus of interest for both students and parents.
This is understandable: everyone with a stake in the labour market – employers, students and the government – believes that higher education has an important role to play in turning bright raw material into work-ready graduates.
Yet in recent years, despite the plethora of employability strategies and programmes of support, we have not seen a significant increase in the number of universities exceeding their employability benchmarks. Nor has there been any discernible shift in employers’ views on the standard of today’s graduates and their capabilities.
Worse still, graduates’ actual skills levels don’t appear to be improving. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures published in September 2014 contained a nasty surprise: only one-quarter of university and college-educated people in England and Northern Ireland were considered to be in the top attainment level for literacy, compared with 37 per cent in Japan and Finland, 36 per cent in the Netherlands and 32 per cent in Australia.
Perhaps the picture this paints is unfair. After all, it is early days for many of the employability initiatives that have been put in place, and the market for graduates isn’t growing at any great rate. But we shouldn’t be complacent.
From looking at universities’ employability strategies, it is clear that most institutions appear to be doing many of the same things. And some important elements of a good employability strategy seem to be missing – most importantly, the conviction that universities need to provide support through all the key transition periods in a student’s life. Without this, students have only temporary bursts of interest and focus on the issue of employability – a matter that is all too easily forgotten or seen as a diversion from the main goal of securing a good degree.
Important transition periods include the beginning of a placement, with its new experiences and challenges, and the move back into full-time study. When students choose to “upgrade” their degree via postgraduate study, there is another key transition to manage, particularly since decisions about postgraduate courses tend to be closely linked to career plans.
At Brunel, we have started up a “transition week”, held every May, that is designed to prepare students for the coming year – whether they are moving into the next year of study or going on to a placement or into the jobs market.
The programme offers some 50 activities, including time management, placement orientation and decision-making, and we also provide opportunities for alumni networking.
Students from all over the campus have got involved and feedback has been positive. We have learned that sessions coming from specific departments, which build on established relationships, are more effective, although central coordination is essential.
And why should a university’s support end when a student’s degree course is over? Today, universities expect to have a relationship with alumni, so it is only right that graduates should continue to receive some level of support in return. For those struggling to secure a graduate job, institutions can offer opportunities to engage in skills development and enhancement through, for example, blended or online learning. All this should be part of the improved student experience that staff in higher education are all striving to achieve.
Universities need to evolve to meet the changing needs of students. They cannot afford to view employability initiatives as a mere box-ticking exercise. Instead, employability should be seen as a journey, with institutions offering a seamless transition from study into employment. No one wants the sector’s arguments about academic quality and innovation to be drowned out by the noise of complaints about the employability of Britain’s graduates.
Zahir Irani is professor and dean of business, arts and social sciences at Brunel University London