Career development modules: every course should have some

October 3, 1997

Getting career development skills incorporated into courses has not been easy, says Chris Phillips

Today's graduates will have very different career paths from their counterparts of ten years ago. Large traditional recruiters are advertising fewer vacancies. Many graduates will start their careers in small or medium-sized organisations. There are fewer permanent contracts around. It will become normal to change jobs more regularly. In the face of change, students will need the skills not just to be employable but to stay employable. With the decline of the graduate training scheme, everyone will have to take responsibility for managing their own careers.

In May 1996, along with several other higher education careers services, we were awarded funds from the Department for Education and Employment to introduce career management skills into the curriculum. The idea was to merge assessed and credit-rated career management skills modules into the academic curriculum of 12 departments. The very idea of a careers module that is offered alongside academic courses is unthinkable to some colleagues because, to them, it is bad education to separate out the development of personal skills. And of course they are right. There is absolutely no question that the ideal outcome for our career management skills project is for all departments, through coursework, to help students identify and develop the skills that they will need for life outside the university. But it is not going to happen immediately and we have had a fairly bumpy ride so far.

We were a little nervous at the response that we would get from our academic colleagues. However in a matter of weeks, even before we had signed the contract with the DFEE, 12 departments came forward asking us to design modules for their students. One year and Sir Ron Dearing later, it seems less startling that so many departments would respond so positively to our blandishments. But at the time we were shocked at how receptive academic colleagues were to the fairly novel idea of integrating careers education into the curriculum.

From the start we worked in partnership with the departments, usually with one or two academic staff who shared our enthusiasm. In nearly every case, the modules we proposed were accepted as serious courses to sit alongside the rest of the curriculum. The deal that we struck with the departments was that the careers service would design the modules, that we would take the majority of the teaching load the first time that the course ran, but the following year would see us fade into the background. The year after that, the module would be taught almost entirely by members of the department. During this two-year handover period we would offer training and support to academic colleagues to enable them to deliver the skills-based group work courses that we had designed.

This process would allow the careers service to develop the initiative across the campus and enable the ownership of the module to pass to the department where it belongs. But it has not worked out like that.

We picked up the signals fairly early on. The departments were positive about the courses, and the academics in line to take over wanted to see the courses continuing but they did not want to teach them. In short, they told us it was not their subject.

After a series of discussions we are close to agreeing a service teaching model allowing us to be resourced to carry on the work. So everyone is happy? Not exactly.

Our achievement in persuading 12 departments in two traditional academic universities to find room for career management skills makes us very proud but it does not make us complacent. The departments working with us are, in the main, science and engineering or vocational courses. It is probably easier for these to accept the need for students to increase their work-related skills.

We were pushing at an open door in many cases. But where we have failed, so far at least, is in persuading arts and social science departments to come on board.

In the meantime, the pressures on universities will continue to build to take action to ensure that undergraduates address career development issues. The Dearing report recommended action and expects universities to respond positively. The teaching quality assessment guidelines are just as explicit and students, in our experience, want it and like it.

Our work in developing career management modules is a step in what we believe to be the right direction; a view shared by UMIST which will soon advertise a lectureship in career management skills based in the school of management. Although modules may not be educationally ideal, at least they address the short-term need to help students understand a little more about the skills that they will need to manage their own careers. The two protagonists in this lively debate - the careers service satisfying a pressing need and those departments who object on educational grounds - both have convincing arguments.

But it is too easy to take entrenched positions. After all, if both parties agree that higher education should turn out individuals with the all-round skills to swim and not sink in the complex torrents of modern life, then the argument focuses on means, not ends. And that is hardly an argument at all.

(The other seven institutions involved in the CMS project are Cheltenham and Gloucester College, College of Ripon and York St John, London Institute, and Exeter, Leeds, Nottingham and Central Lancashire universities.) Chris Phillips is deputy director of Manchester University/UMIST careers service.

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