We can work it out

As graduates struggle to find employment, universities are having to think more creatively about how to prepare them for the workplace, says Rebecca Attwood

September 2, 2010

As graduate numbers have grown in recent decades, so too has universities' emphasis on equipping students with the skills to succeed in the jobs market. In the UK alone, well over a hundred reports have discussed what employability skills are and why they matter. With the arrival of recession, the focus is now stronger than ever.

James Reed is chairman of the recruitment company Reed and knows a thing or two about what employers are looking for in their employees. When someone told him in a meeting, "The trouble is, we don't know which skills will be most in demand in 10 years' time," he decided to ask employers a question. If they had to choose between an individual with "the desired mindset" who lacked the complete skill set for the job, and an individual with the complete skill set but without the desired mindset, which would it be?

The individual with the desired mindset was chosen by 1,212 out of 1,263 respondents.

"If we get the mindset right, it is more likely to lead to skills being developed as a consequence," says Reed, who fears that much of what is on offer may be "facing the wrong way".

Is business good at communicating what it wants from graduates to the education sector?

"Perhaps not," he admits. "Given the answer to our question, it is not unreasonable to ask why everyone is focusing on skills."

One thing is clear, however; employers want graduates with relevant experience of the workplace.

Many countries have a long history of degrees that combine off-campus work placements with on-campus academic study. But research indicates that the extent to which this is part of the typical student experience varies significantly.

Survey data published by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at The Open University last year indicate that the UK has one of the lowest rates of participation in work placements in Europe, at around 30 per cent. The only country where the figure was lower was Italy, at 22 per cent.

In contrast, the figure was 84 per cent in France and 87 per cent in the Netherlands.

Rogier Boogers, academic information officer at the University of Amsterdam, explains: "Higher education in the Netherlands is set up with a binary system: the traditional academic universities, like the University of Amsterdam, and the institutions focused on vocational education, for instance the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam. At the vocationally oriented institutions, almost 100 per cent of the students undertake an internship."

At the University of Amsterdam, a six-month internship is optional for bachelor's degree students.

In the US, courses that alternate work placements with university study are commonly known as cooperative education and are offered by about 500 higher education institutions. At Drexel University, a private university in Philadelphia, this form of education has been running for 93 years. The majority of Drexel students take a five-year bachelor's degree, during which they leave the campus to take part in three six-month work placements: once in the second year, once in the third year and once in the fourth year.

The big advantage of the model is that students can try out different areas of work and leave university with a clear idea of what they want to do, says Peter Franks, senior associate vice-provost for career education in Drexel's Steinbright Career Development Center.

"It's a chance for students to test what they're learning in the workplace, to understand the relevance of it and to learn more about themselves and their career interests.

"They've had 30 interviews by the time they graduate. They know how to interview and they know how to job search. They have a CV that is substantial with professional work experience."

The placements are paid and students earn an average of $16,000 (£10,200) for six months' work. As students gain experience, they can adjust their study programme to suit their future career.

"A student who is an accounting major may have always thought, I'm going to be a certified public accountant, and will go out and work with one of the major accounting firms, for example," says Franks.

"They will really get a sense of what it is like to be a CPA, doing auditing, working with clients. They may get a taste of it and think it wasn't what they thought and it isn't what they want to do.

"So they may come back and change their major from business to something else. We can accommodate that, assuming the student meets the academic requirements, because we are a large university."

In the UK, figures suggest a decline over the past 12 years in the number of sandwich courses combining study and work placements. According to a joint Universities UK and CBI report published last year (Future Fit: Preparing Graduates for the World of Work), 10.5 per cent of all undergraduates in 1994-95 were classified as being on a sandwich course, but by 2006-07 the figure had dropped to 6.5 per cent.

The University of Surrey - which comes top in the latest employment statistics - has a long tradition of year-long work placements. As the university has expanded from science and engineering into the arts and social sciences, it has taken that tradition with it.

Marion Wynne-Davies, head of Surrey's department of English, was asked two years ago to set up a BA in English literature that would allow for the possibility of a professional training year. "It was quite a radical thing for English literature," she says.

Some 80 students are now entering their third year of the course and around a third of them are about to embark on a placement.

Given the economic situation, Wynne-Davies admits to being "terribly worried" about whether the scheme would work, but she says that the programme has been "a triumph", with every student entering paid employment. Students will be working in arts centres, libraries and galleries, and in marketing, teaching and journalism.

Every department at Surrey has a professional training tutor who, with the support of an administrator, finds placements for students - although some students choose to seek out their own.

The tutor visits every employer and draws up a contract with them, and the student is supported throughout the placement.

"It is a very formal process and a legal process and it is very carefully monitored," says Wynne-Davies.

"The professional training tutors talk to the employer and find out what exactly would benefit that employers' organisation or business - the employer has to get something out of it too.

"The important thing is that by the time students come out of a placement year, they will have something concrete to show future employers because they will have worked on a project," Wynne-Davies explains.

"Almost all English departments around the country now alert students to the generic skills they are learning through the study of English: how to argue, how to think independently, how to summarise, how to write well, speak well, work as part of a group, present something individually, write a report. The transferable skills are brilliant," she adds.

"I think one of the reasons English is such a popular subject is that you can go into so many different careers. I know that my colleagues around the country are just as concerned as I am that their students can go out and find jobs. We know how hard it is and anything we can do, we will do it."

Bold claims are made in the employability statements that the UK government asked every university to publish by the end of last month: "Employability is at the heart of everything we do"; "You will leave us with attributes to help you stand out from the crowd"; "The university does not simply talk about employability, we deliver it".

Faced with headlines warning of the toughest graduate jobs market in a decade and official statistics showing graduate unemployment on the rise, government ministers and universities are keen to be seen to be doing everything they can.

The publication of employability statements fulfils a requirement set out in Labour's 2009 framework for the future of higher education, a document that asked all universities "to demonstrate how they prepare their students for employment, including through training in modern workplace skills such as team working, business awareness and communication skills".

In addition, the framework called for universities to publish more information about their courses, a policy strongly backed by the new coalition government. Data on employment rates are set to become more prominent and, controversially, students may soon have access to details about the graduate earnings associated with every university course.

Launching the framework 10 months ago, Lord Mandelson, then business secretary, went as far as to suggest that an element of university funding could be linked to graduate employment rates in future. It is an idea that has been explored by the Higher Education Funding Council for England: a 2008 report from the funding council said that a graduate employment indicator "has the long-term potential to be one of a basket of measures that could collectively be used as a basis for incentive funding mechanisms".

But the pressure placed on universities to pursue the "employability agenda" has not just come from government. Complaints from business about graduates' skills were common long before the economic downturn.

A survey conducted to inform the 2009 joint CBI and UUK publication on the issue found that 35 per cent of employers were dissatisfied with graduates' "business/customer awareness", 20 per cent with their self-management skills and 13 per cent with their communication and literacy.

The majority of employers (82 per cent) thought the sector should be focusing on developing current students' employability skills rather than increasing graduate numbers.

This "constant criticism" from business is something that ministers cannot afford to ignore, John Denham, the former universities secretary, argued in an interview with Times Higher Education last year.

Then there is demand from students, who face increasing uncertainty over their future employment prospects. For their report, the CBI and UUK surveyed 880 students, 35 per cent of whom said they would have taken a stand-alone employability programme had it been available. More than a third (34 per cent) said they would have taken up an internship, and 23 per cent would have chosen to take a sandwich course if their university had given them the option. The National Student Forum, a student body set up in 2008 by the Labour government, has also called for more opportunities for students to take part in all of these things.

Employment-oriented and vocational courses have always been a focus for some universities, particularly the post-92 institutions, but a shift towards the pursuit of "employability skills" is now taking place more broadly across the sector.

In the past, students studying non-vocational subjects at research-intensive universities probably thought about their post-graduation employment plans only when they visited the university careers service. Now, the same institutions are introducing employment-focused programmes for all undergraduates and, as at Surrey, year-long internships are offered even in the academic subjects that are the least geared towards a specific vocation.

The models favoured are diverse: credit-bearing career-oriented modules, work placements, personal development planning, teaching styles that incorporate group work and "real-life" scenarios, activities and awards designed to encourage volunteering or entrepreneurship, career workshops and foundation degrees.

However, recent research suggests that the transition has not been a straightforward one.

In the CBI-UUK survey, 16 per cent of universities reported "significant difficulties" in addressing employability issues with their students.

There was also disagreement over where the main responsibility lay: 21 per cent of universities said they largely expected students to address employability issues for themselves.

An in-depth qualitative study on careers education in universities, Values at Work: A Qualitative Study of Careers Education in Higher Education, funded by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and published in 2009, shed light on the way careers education is perceived by staff.

In preparing the report, Julia Horn, a lecturer in educational development for researchers at the Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, conducted 16 hours of interviews in eight UK universities with academics and careers staff involved in the delivery of credit-bearing career-focused undergraduate courses.

Careers education, she says, is remarkable because it brings together staff in many different roles across the sector.

Programmes are frequently delivered jointly between careers experts and academics, and inevitably, perhaps, this can sometimes create tensions.

Horn observed that many academics abdicated responsibility for the content of careers modules they were involved with, deferring to career advisers as the experts in the area.

Some academics said they felt ill-qualified to judge the content of a course but responsible for its academic credibility and validity through the assessment process. Others doubted the academic credentials of careers courses.

"We've kind of over-assessed," said one. "You go round speaking to people who do this stuff, and they over-assess because they feel they have to because it's not academic."

Other academics held naive views about careers education, yet had significant control over the content of the course.

All this worries Horn.

"Careers advisers can be refused entry to, or can refuse to enter, debates about assessment, criteria, judgement and standards," says her report.

"Simultaneously, lecturers and academics can be refused entry to, or can refuse to enter, debates about content, curricula, learning and outcomes. Yet a good course relies on both content and assessment being closely linked, and on course staff having knowledge of and control over both.

"Convenient alliances between departments and module leaders to put into place assessment methods that masquerade as valid, while not promoting appropriate learning from students, threaten the ability of courses to produce good outcomes," she warns.

Difficulties also arose over the funding of modules. Where careers courses lay outside an academic department, departments that were under financial pressure had the power to advise their students not to take the careers courses, or even to block access to them.

And all the staff Horn spoke to had to deal with a proportion of students who did not engage with the programme.

"I think one of the main stumbling blocks is that career-oriented employment is outside our students' experience and so it's very difficult to get them to engage with career management realistically," said one interviewee.

Another commented: "There is, even now, a residual undercurrent that's slightly sceptical, and even at the start of their third year many students are saying, 'I can't be bothered with this yet. Once I've graduated I'll start to think about my own career.'" Ironically, the study found that staff involvement in careers education was not seen as a "career move". Rewards were poor and careers staff could encounter hostility towards their work from academics.

"(Lecturers) say we don't want this in here because it's Thatcherite," said one interviewee.

"Thatcherite is them having to work in McDonald's because they haven't got a clue what else they can do with their lives ... This is empowering, not restricting. It's nothing to do with fitting people into roles in society. It's giving them confidence to change society."

Exacerbating these tensions were concerns about an ever-growing focus on employment-rate statistics.

Here, careers staff face a double bind, says Horn. On the one hand, poor statistics can be powerful, giving careers educators the power to introduce new programmes. On the other, establishing any link between programmes and career outcomes is an impossible task.

Several interviewees felt under pressure to demonstrate the validity of their courses through an improvement in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) statistics, which measure graduate employment six months after graduation, but they had been unable to do this successfully.

"It is playing with the devil really, because they are almost bound to fail," says Horn, pointing out that a module can at best contribute to the career outcomes of an individual, not be the cause of it.

The danger of this approach is that "careers" and careers services become associated with instrumentalism.

"If careers courses are justified to senior management of universities only on the promise of improving performance indicators, then career modules that foreground educational, liberal, social and other values are likely to come under threat - even though these values might be embraced within, as well as beyond, the higher education and careers guidance community," says her report.

Michael Tomlinson, a lecturer in educational studies at Keele University, encountered similar attitudes among academics when he was conducting research for his book, Higher Education and Graduate Employability (2009).

"A lot of the academics I spoke to were very concerned that the move towards employability - along with top-up fees and the growing marketisation of higher education - may have affected the attitude of students.

"Many were concerned that students were becoming more outcome-driven, instrumental and short-termist in their approach.

"There is a fear that overemphasising employability may be diverting attention from broader educational goals around personal development, citizenship and developing a more critical outlook on the world.

Horn says it is important that universities are extremely clear about what their career-related courses aim to do. Are the objectives practical or educational? At the moment, she says, some seem to be a "mishmash" of the two.

In fact, she argues, the topic offers plenty of fodder for critical and intellectual thought.

"'Career' sits at a fascinating border point between the personal and the social, the formal and the informal, the employer and the individual," Horn writes in her study.

"Careers education can potentially give curriculum space to activities which are not currently easily catered for in careers services, such as the ethical and social aspects of work, and the links between a degree discipline and social action."

She also worries that, in an effort to engage students, much careers education is centred on a "deficit" model.

"A lot of it is about telling students that they are inadequate, that they have not got enough work experience, they don't have the right attitude - 'A degree is not enough; you have no idea what is coming to you.'

"Students have been told all their lives how important it is to go to university and when they get there they are told off for believing that."

One interviewee told her about their realisation that they had been "scaring" their students. "About three years ago, students were saying that they felt we were scaring them too much," the interviewee said. "When we reflected, we thought that maybe we were a bit heavy-handed."

The term "employability" may be all the rage among policymakers, but Horn prefers the term "career", which she sees as broader.

"To me, employability tends to suggest what the employers want and is a sort of one-way view - employers tell students how to be," she says. "I feel career is the other way around, a two-way view, and that is how it should be.

"A career is what you want it to be. It can include voluntary work, childcare; it is about you shaping it as well."

She would like to hear a stronger voice from recent graduates. "There is very little research into how new graduates experience the jobs market in the first five years. It is a remarkably silent corner of all of this."


A recent report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills compares 20 published definitions and found no agreement.

However, almost all definitions are "in practice quite similar", the commission claims. They centre on personal communication skills, using numbers, words and technology, team-working and customer care. Also needed is a "positive approach": being ready to "participate, make suggestions, and accept new ideas and constructive criticism".

James Reed, chairman of the recruitment company Reed, has surveyed 800 employers to draw up a list of the key qualities they look for in a candidate.

Top of the list are honesty and trustworthiness, followed by commitment, adaptability and accountability.

He often encounters the view that "mindset" is not something that can be taught, but he argues that mindset is influenced by education and experience.

"I think of mindset as a lens through which you see the world - and that lens can be adjusted."


The University of Leeds developed its Leeds for Life programme as part of "an increasing recognition of our responsibility to help students make the most of themselves and what they have done here in terms of employability," says Vivien Jones, the university's pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching.

A key part of the "holistic" programme is a structured model that encourages all students to discuss the skills and attributes they are acquiring during the course of their studies with their personal tutor.

"There were two messages coming through from employers," Jones explains.

Employers told the university they liked students from Leeds, but the university also heard that their students "weren't always very good at articulating their skills effectively".

The programme centres on the skills students gain as a result of their course, but students are also encouraged to think about the ways in which they could expand their skills base beyond the academic curriculum.

"It doesn't mean that we are expecting personal tutors to be careers advisers - we've got a very good careers service - but it does mean that tutors are helping students think about the ways in which they are developing," Jones says.

"In an atmosphere in which there is a lot of emphasis on the vocational, we want to give students confidence about the flexibility, the creativity, the enterprise skills that we believe this kind of education helps them to attain."

Students also have access to a "living CV", a web-based tool that they can update regularly.

Meanwhile, with funding from the Alumni Annual Fund, the Santander Group and the university's Academic Development Fund, the Leeds for Life Foundation offers students opportunities to carry out social enterprise and other projects in the UK and abroad.

Jones also points out that universities are measured on their employability statistics as part of league tables.

"It is something we have to take account of - it would be dishonest to say that we don't."


The University of Exeter is introducing mandatory professional, commercial awareness and behavioural training for all undergraduates.

"This is a strategic move to ensure that all students in all disciplines engage in the employment and employability agenda equally," says Paul Blackmore, the university's head of employability.

The university, he explains, is keen to improve its performance in league-table measures of graduate employability.

In the past, the fact that many employers favoured graduates from research-led institutions meant that research institutions did not always engage with the "employability agenda" as a priority, but this is changing, says Blackmore.

As part of a new structure, an employability team based within each academic college of the university will coordinate all career-oriented activities.

College associate deans will be responsible for key performance indicators in the area, including the official Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education statistics.

"I've drafted a league table - that I have not been thanked for by the academics - of the worst-performing departments," Blackmore says.

The compulsory programme includes a two-day experiential learning programme. An existing "team development programme", delivered to all first-year students in welcome week, will be developed to make it more explicitly linked to employability.

Students will explore how learning styles and skills developed in higher education relate to the workplace. Activities range from coming up with products and services for a music festival to exploring personality traits and playing an intercultural sensitivity game.

Meanwhile, The Forum, a £48 million building presently under construction, will provide dedicated space including tiered lecture theatres for employer presentations, and act as a hub for the university's employability division.


The Student Room website asked students whether they felt adequately prepared to find and get a job. Here are some of their replies:

"Universities need to place considerably more emphasis on obtaining relevant work experience, particularly for students studying less ostensibly 'practical' subjects (such as arts courses)."

"At my university, skills were emphasised, but there should have been compulsory classes to attend."

"I found it far too stressful to focus on both achieving a good degree and preparing for a career. I felt that doing this would be at the detriment of my grades."

"I feel as if I'm more prepared than people who leave school without any vocational training or higher education."

"There are a lot of people with similar degrees, so I feel that I need to look for something to make myself stand out from the crowd."

"I feel confident only because I have been offered a job abroad after completing a placement with a company."

"A lot could be done to make undergraduates more aware of the direction their degree could take them in."

"Careers services are available to people proactive enough to use them but I don't think there is enough information about when you should begin preparing for finding jobs."

"I feel like I have not been taught anything that would be of real use in a work environment."

"My course has not offered any career development modules so I do not feel prepared."

"I worked full time in my gap year and in all summer holidays, as well as part time throughout my course. This prepared me well."

"Yes - but through my own efforts."


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