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Improving our employability
Why focus on employability?
The whole process should be viewed as a partnership with shared responsibility for success. (NSF member)
Although many of us choose to go to university simply to study a subject we enjoy and to reap the wider beneﬁts of a positive university experience, we are increasingly aware of the role that higher education plays in improving our employability. Our report last year touched brieﬂy on this topic, providing suggestions for further development in this area for both Government and universities and colleges. However, in recognition of the current economic situation in which we are emerging into a depressed, and therefore more competitive, job market, we were particularly keen to explore what more could be done to improve students’ work-related skills and knowledge, so that we are in the best possible position when seeking employment. In our discussions, we were joined by: the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Service (AGCAS), the professional association for higher education careers practitioners who lead, support and provide resources to facilitate the delivery of careers services for HE and related sectors the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE), which works to support the development of quality and standards across all forms of work experience and to encourage more employers to provide work placements
The NSF, AGCAS and NCWE are all in agreement that students have a responsibility to be proactive in developing employability skills and seeking advice and opportunities. Ultimately, we recognise that as students we are responsible for ensuring we are employable and that we need to start thinking about what comes after university or college sooner rather than later, if we are to develop the right skills and make the most of the opportunities on offer during our time in higher education. For example, we should consider participating in a range of extra curricular activities and/or working part-time while we study or over the summer. We also need to be realistic about the opportunities that are likely to be available to us in any particular career, given our individual level of ability and current experience. However, as forum members, we feel that there is still more that some universities and colleges could do to ensure all students can access adequate support for their endeavours. We believe that: a clear university or college-wide employability strategy an impartial, well-informed, well-resourced, high proﬁle careers service high quality, well-structured work placement programmes are critical factors in increasing our employability, and in this section we share our suggestions for the ways in which universities and colleges can address these three priority areas, along with speciﬁc recommendations for consideration at a national level to incentivise and monitor progress on this front.
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I feel optimistic about my career prospects
I am proud of what I have achieved I have a good understanding of my personal skills and strengths – and how I can address any weaknesses I may have over time my expectations about what I can achieve are informed by knowledge of the graduate labour market
I am able to make an informed decision about the next step
If students are motivated, proactively engaged and supported by an effective strategy to improve employability, how should it feel from the student’s perspective?
my university has strong links to local and national employers that it can leverage to help provide me with opportunities to learn and grow
My university or college encouraged me to consider whether entering into employment or continuing with further study is the best option for me at the moment I know where to go for up to date information about graduate jobs and training opportunities My university careers service provided me with impartial, wellinformed advice and guidance about the range of potential sectors where I could consider seeking employment – or about the particular sector and/or occupation(s) I am interested in I have developed a realistic expectation about the current and future employment market for these sectors/occupations I have been able to speak with someone with ﬁrst-hand experience in this sector/ occupation, signposted and supported by my university or college I am aware of the ﬁnancial implications of entering the world of work at the moment (e.g. repayment of student loans) or continuing with further study (e.g. taking on additional ﬁnancial responsibilities)
I feel conﬁdent that I have valuable skills and experience to offer potential employers
My university or college has provided me with opportunities to work, undertake work placements and volunteer during my studies and understand the transferable skills and experience I have developed during my time in higher education My university or college encouraged me to consider how I can improve my employability by choosing particular modules, where applicable My university or college encouraged me to capture these skills and experiences in a Personal Development Plan (PDP) or a Record of Achievement as I progressed My university or college offered seminars or courses that helped me to understand how to translate these skills to market myself successfully to potential employers
NSF vision for improving employability:
how will we know if we are getting it right?
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Priority1: a clear university or college-wide employability strategy
We would like to see every higher education institution not only implementing a clear employability strategy, but co-developing it with students, and promoting its existence to all staff and students from the time they sign up for their courses. Clearly, some subjects (especially vocational courses) have a more explicit focus on employment and career-speciﬁc skills and knowledge than others – and we are not suggesting, for example, that every English literature module have clear employment-related objectives. However, we do think that a whole-institution approach to the development of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and the use of complex data, will ultimately beneﬁt all students.14 Of course, we acknowledge that many universities are already undertaking work in this area. However, the level of emphasis given to developing employability varies signiﬁcantly from one institution to the next, and we would like to see all universities and colleges commit to an internal review of current initiatives and develop a strategy to cohere these and to foster employability across the institution.
What should universities and colleges include in an employability strategy?
explicit recognition and active promotion of the value of: – work placements (whether short or long term/voluntary or compulsory) – volunteering programmes (and recognition of this experience as part of a student’s ‘record of achievement’) – part-time jobs (either while studying and/or during the holidays) increased resources for, and the promotion of the use of, personal development plans to explicitly outline and monitor the transferable skills developed through both academic and non-academic experiences
the provision of optional modules/classes that consider how the skills/knowledge developed during study/placements translate across into the work environment (e.g. a course in ‘How to Market Yourself to Employers’) an employer mentoring scheme to enable current students to develop a greater understanding of the business world15 a curriculum offer that: – covers not only academic subject knowledge, but also includes the opportunity for students to engage with alumni or employers working in a related ﬁeld – is co-developed with employers and experts in the ﬁeld to ensure contemporary relevance (where subject-appropriate) systematic integration of the university or college careers service into students’ everyday lives e.g. helping them to ﬁnd summer or parttime jobs, short or long term work placements, ‘summer camps,’ giving advice on module choices which may impact upon future career paths etc (see Priority 2 for further detail) adequate levels of resourcing, awarenessraising and monitoring of careers services to ensure that they have the high proﬁle and ﬁle
reputation they need within the university or college to carry out their important role for all students – further work with student unions to raise awareness of the nature and breadth of the careers services on offer – reciprocal agreements with other universities and colleges so that students can access local career information when home over the summer – rigorous internal monitoring of the implementation of the existing AGCAS code of practice by university and college careers services – an explicit commitment to support students with a wide range of speciﬁc needs e.g. disabled students, international students, mature students, students of varying academic abilities a sufﬁciently resourced, high quality work placement programme (see Priority 3 for further detail)
The NSF was set up to help to deﬁne ‘a reasonable student experience’ and to make recommendations to Government to help to achieve this. However, many of our suggestions for improvement fall within the gift of individual universities and colleges, rather than government policy. Therefore, we have outlined recommended practice for universities and colleges in each of our key discussion areas, against which we invite individual institutions to measure their current practice. We readily acknowledge that many universities and colleges may already be implementing some of these practices, but urge all institutions to consider whether adopting new ways of working and/or reviewing the extent to which guidance is being implemented in practice, could lead to further improvement in this area.
We would like all universities and colleges to incorporate the following aspects into the development or review of their employability strategies:
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Priority 2: a well-informed, well-resourced, high proﬁle university or college careers service
We recognise that the demands on information, advice and guidance services at universities and colleges are challenging in their breadth and complexity and it is critical that resourcing levels reﬂect this. Some students will be seeking advice on next steps with no particular career in mind, whereas others will already be studying on courses that have a clear progression route from university. In addition, some students may wish to consider further study – and we outline our recommendations for information, advice and guidance for postgraduates in particular in Chapter 3. However, here we are focusing on the role that IAG services can play in supporting students to improve their employability in particular, and we outline some current challenges and suggested strategies for addressing these below.
and reach out in ways that are appropriate to the various stages of our university life:16
Admittedly in Fresher’s’ Week, we’re not likely to be thinking about the job we’ll be applying for when we graduate – but we’d welcome help in getting a part-time job during term time, or over the Christmas holidays. That way, we’d become aware of the range of services they could offer right from the start. (NSF Member) The careers service could advise on whether some module choices will affect your potential career path. Then you’d know it’s not just about going to them when you’re about to leave! (NSF Member)
Insufﬁciently differentiated support for different student groups
Many careers services are excellent and provide outstanding facilities for all student communities. However, in our experience, some students have sometimes felt their careers services could provide better tailored provision. Some disabled students have found that they were unable to access sufﬁciently specialist advice and guidance from university careers services. We would like to see all careers advisors being trained in how best to support disabled students, whether in the provision of direct support or, where appropriate, of better signposting to someone who can offer specialist knowledge or advice.
Insufﬁcient integration of careers services into the mainstream student experience
All too often the careers service can operate, or be perceived by students to operate, in a silo. Many students only consider engaging with careers services as they prepare to leave. We believe that more could be done to leverage the service’s skills and knowledge base to improve the employability of students through more sustained engagement throughout the entire period of study. We would like to see all careers services being better integrated into different aspects of university life, e.g. working with academic departments to integrate career planning into the curriculum, working with student unions to energise their approach to student engagement,
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39 National Student Forum – Annual Report
Priority 2: a well-informed, well-resourced, high proﬁle university or college careers service (Cont...)
In the past, some international students have felt that careers advisors have not viewed them as an equal priority, because their immediate employment opportunities in the UK were more limited.17 Careers advisors need to be fully aware of the new immigration laws allowing international students to remain in the UK for two years after graduation, and the impact this may have on their employment options and employability. Many prospective postgraduate students continue to struggle to access accessible, student-facing information about the differences between various postgraduate courses; and postgraduate researchers report difﬁculty in ascertaining their long-term career options and prospects. We would like to see the development of existing IAG for prospective postgraduates and training for research supervisors to provide careers advice. For a further discussion of careers guidance for postgraduates see chapter 3.
Striking the balance between realism and aspiration
The student population encompasses a wide range of abilities, and we recognise that we need to be realistic in our expectations (a top law ﬁrm is unlikely take us on if we are heading towards a third class degree!). Careers and academic staff have a critical role to play in helping us to develop reasonable expectations, whilst encouraging us to be the best that we can be.
It doesn’t always feel as if we’re being taken seriously if we are not heading towards a ﬁrst or upper second-class degree. (NSF member)
This encouragement is essential at all universities – regardless of the perceived ‘prestige’ of the university we are studying at. We would like to see university and college careers services place more emphasis on promoting: success stories of alumni from non-traditional universities alumni mentoring schemes to inspire and motivate all students to achieve all that they are capable of stories of graduates who have been successful regardless of the class of degree they attained major employers who do not necessarily require outstanding academic achievement, but who place a greater emphasis on a broad range of skills, with whom students can embark on a potentially successful and rewarding career.
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mos hen stud a compre ‘supply’ (e.g. the mployers iatives for it employs ing the e sing both and’ (e.g. know rime Minister’s In cellence niversity s Brunel U ployability, addre ) and ‘dem m the P n and ex ts to em rt fro for it ovatio student tuden ed suppo redness fund inn nd prepa recruits). Continu er bodies which for international s market a l th s rnationa 2 and o initiative te d y accept in l Education 1 an ng approach. Ke na eri Internatio ence of its pione s vid ons t service provide e expectati specialis are: develop recruiter to date rket and eo case studies sultant to job ma rs Con f a Caree the UK graduate ge including vid o g, intment ining packa marketin • Appo DVD outl ™ careers ﬁnance, pre-entry the Destinations ractice such as • A ctors and p ed in key se dule for -enhanc ce culture ork experience • A mo chnology t workpla dw bining te highligh jobs an of e com directory rogramm • A web gineering aration p from employers as ent Prep d en rt ploym IT an in overse -suppo duate Em terested ns and e panies in d other skills A Postgra e to face sessio air • g com F fac introducin e, languages an learning, rnational Careers g s and ..’ events l Inte siness in de local knowled eir interview skill a oing bu • Annu inning ‘D ts who can provi nts to improve th -w iﬁc de • Award n to studen ntry spec e for stu nsive cou expansio eb-based packag orldwide omprehe ding c ue w yers w ges inclu • A uniq icate with emplo t web pa mmun al studen co ation sed intern • Focus ent information employm
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Priority 3: a high quality, well-structured work placement programme
Work placements can play a key role in the formal and informal learning of students. Sometimes we organise optional work experience for ourselves (often outside of the academic term) to improve our chances of ﬁnding employment. In other instances, we are required to undertake a work placement as a component of our course. We primarily focused our discussions on the latter, as we acknowledge that, although we value any support offered by university careers services in sourcing optional work experience, responsibility for these placements rests primarily with us as individuals. Clearly, there are three partners in the creation of a successful compulsory work placement: the student the university the employer/placement provider In our experience, there is a great deal of unevenness across the country with regard to the level of support provided by universities for compulsory work placements. Some of us have had great experiences where we have felt nurtured by our university; learned a great deal; and become more employable as a result – as demonstrated by Shefﬁeld Hallam University in our excellence in action case study. However, others of us have experienced intense frustration over our work placement and come away feeling as though we have gained very little. In this time of economic instability it is more important than ever that work placements are fully leveraged to supplement formal academic teaching and to increase students’ employability.
A well structured, stretching placement should mutually beneﬁt students and providers – we develop further and faster, and they can better meet their business’s requirements. (NSF member)
We examined some of the most common issues faced by students on compulsory placement, and used these to inform our recommended practice for universities, placement providers – and students.
What do we, as students, need to demonstrate to maximise our chances of a successful placement?
a positive, open-minded, ﬂexible attitude professionalism: politeness to colleagues; timekeeping and a commitment to quality work an understanding that sometimes we will be required to undertake routine tasks – because that is the reality of some aspects of that type of work and/or is essential to the provider organisation’s immediate requirements a willingness to stretch ourselves by trying new things and ‘going the extra mile’ to impress a desire to open up future leads for placements or jobs by networking and speaking to people
What can placement providers do to support work placements?
We agree with the National Council for Work Experience that the best work placement providers ensure that there is: senior management buy-in to internship programmes and the resulting business beneﬁts, ensuring continued widespread internal commitment to the scheme a dedicated mentor or buddy who takes the time to get to know our incoming strengths and weaknesses, and supports our development a structured placement with a reasonable level of variety and stretch which encompasses academic objectives if needed a pastoral interest in students’ wellbeing a commitment to paying all expenses, and/ or to pay students the minimum wage if they are carrying out a role that the company would have to hire somebody else to do The National Council for Work Experience runs a Quality Mark accreditation/benchmarking scheme for placement providers who exemplify good practice. We would like to see more providers applying for this – and for Government to provide ﬁnancial support by subsidising and encouraging employers who want to follow best practice in this respect.
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How can universities best support work placements?
The NSF was set up to help to deﬁne ‘a reasonable student experience’ and to make recommendations to Government to help to achieve this. However, many of our suggestions for improvement fall within the gift of individual universities and colleges, rather than government policy. Therefore, we outline recommended practice for universities and colleges in each of our key discussion areas, against which we invite individual institutions to measure their current practice. We readily acknowledge that many universities and colleges may already be implementing some of these practices, but urge all institutions to consider whether adopting new ways of working and/or reviewing the extent to which guidance is being implemented in practice, could lead to further improvement in this area.
To improve work placements at an institutional level, we would like to see all universities and colleges implementing:
a structured, phased approach to the delivery of information and guidance about work placements e.g.
– a general overview before we sign up for the course – tailored input in the months leading up to the placement (e.g sessions to explore student perceptions of work experience in advance) – detailed information in the days immediately prior to the placement beginning – structured debrieﬁng sessions to follow up on what was learned during the placement
the option to set up our own work placement if the university is struggling to ﬁnd one that we feel is appropriate to our needs (as long as it meets the university or college’s requirements too) a formal agreement with placement providers that sets out guidelines for what students need to learn on their placement – and sharing this with students training programmes for provider mentors
– general training on how to supervise and support placement students professionally and effectively – speciﬁc training, where relevant, on how to support the needs of international students and disabled students in the workplace18 (e.g. enabling disabled students to have time out of the placement to access disability support)
a rigorous internal review of current practice against the best practice guidance forwork placements* a dedicated work placement specialist unit that:
– builds and maintains excellent relationships with many providers locally, nationally and internationally so that students have a choice – maintains clear and current proﬁles of the placements available – provides specialist help to disabled students to help them ﬁnd placements appropriate to their needs (e.g. some disabled students may need specialist IT equipment, quiet environments and extra time) – works closely with, or is part of, the careers service to provide continuity for students and employers
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sufﬁcient communication with students on placement and the provider to ensure progression against learning objectives – and to maintain students’ motivation and connection with the university a commitment to listen equally to both the student and employer perspective to resolve any matters of dispute over the quality of the placement and to enable students to change placements if necessary
* Outlined in QAA’s Code of Practice for work-based and placement learning, section 9. See: www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/ codeofpractice/section9
es ava f resourc umber o award: Division a good n including loyability here are isabled students T nd Emp roviders when gd areers a ga supportin ester’s C and placement p ndertakin on f Manch ti essfully u ersity o ersities and succ for more informa good The Univ lkit to assist univ • ﬁnding dents in ning too its.ac.uk/ abled students, a rt win d stu toolk g disable .disability for dis t suppo supportin See http://www ork placements Specialis w nt. rance in roviding lity Assu placeme its: ‘p Qua lines for fES’ toolk • The D guide’ and ‘Guide e practic SpLDs’ nts with for stude
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NSF vision for an ideal work placement
Samantha is just coming to the end of her work placement, which took place in her third year of university. Work placements are a signiﬁcant part of her degree and successful completion is a pre-requisite to her graduating.
Samantha had been looking forward to her work placement since she applied for her course. The course prospectus provided a rich insight into what it would be like because it included stories from former students who had completed similar placements. It also told her when and how she would receive further information about it during her course. Throughout her second year she was well prepared for the year-long placement, which took place in her third year. Over the course of the year, in different modules, she was taught the knowledge and skills she would need for her placement. She was also in regular contact with her university’s placement unit, which matched her skill set with a placement provider to ﬁnd her the perfect employer. Additionally, she was assured that if this process had not worked, she would have been able to request a change of placement. A specialist support unit supported one of her fellow students, Paul, who has a disability. They worked hard behind the scenes to ensure he too got a valuable placement, ensuring that his particular support requirements were met and that the placement provider was aware of how best to support him to create a placement that was mutually beneﬁcial to both Paul and the employer.
Once on placement Samantha was paid the minimum wage. In addition she was only required to pay half of her university fees during this placement year as the university acknowledged that during work placement years, its responsibility as a learning provider is greatly reduced. In recognition of the fees she continued to pay, she was given structured support from the university, including a half-day’s lecture back on campus per week. Samantha was assigned to a mentor at the placement who looked after everything she did academically, and she was given a ‘go-to person’ to speak to if she had any non-academic needs or concerns. Her mentor assigned her clear objectives detailing what she needed to accomplish and learn. These were created in conjunction with her university, and they continued to check in on her to ensure she was progressing. She was given a logbook with a list of tasks she needed to accomplish, a box for her to ﬁll in the date where she achieved this, and then a place for a signature from her mentor. She was regularly assessed and given clear feedback so that she was able to improve. What was really great though, was that they were ﬂexible with this learning. There was some box ticking involved, but in the areas in which she was clearly already competent they didn’t make her continue the programme. Instead, they designed a bespoke programme to stretch her. On reﬂection, as Samantha drew towards the end of the placement, she felt she was given a great insight into the world of work and the culture of the work place. She felt more secure about her future employment because she had made great contacts on her placement – in fact she was even hopeful that she might be offered a job there at some stage in the future.
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NSF recommendations for supporting employability
We have drawn upon our expertise in what it is like to study in higher education, to develop recommendations that we believe require attention at a national strategic level. Some recommendations may involve a shift in current policy or practice, or new collaborations at a national level. However, others may more appropriately require careful consideration of how effectively or how widely existing programmes of work or speciﬁc initiatives are being implemented. We have indicated what it would mean for students in our day to day lives if these recommendations were successfully implemented, along with some potential
indicators of success. As students we are not experts in the workings of the sector, and we both value and respect the sector’s autonomy. We therefore urge Government and/or national sector organisations as appropriate to consider how these recommendations might be taken forward most effectively – either individually or collaboratively. We invite stakeholders to view our work as an invitation to engage in an ongoing dialogue to bring about improvement for all students in future.
What would this mean for students? 5. Incentivise placement providers to increase the number of, and improve the quality of, placements on offer. See vision for an ideal work placement on pages 34-35
How could we measure success? Government is supporting/ sponsoring the NCWE Awards for quality work placements Government is subsidising a number of SMEs to take part in the Quality Assurance Mark Schemes More employers are adhering to a framework for the quality and standards of work placements (or have achieved the NCWE Quality Assurance Mark) Increased numbers of employers, including SMEs and large corporations, are offering internships
6. Identify ways in which university careers services can be better supported to meet the needs of particular student groups (e.g. disabled students, international students and postgraduate students)
I am satisﬁed that I have been able to access satisfactory specialist careers guidance that takes account of my personal situation
All universities offer dedicated, tailored support for disabled, international, postgraduate and other student groups with specialist needs – and this is widely acknowledged to be the case by these particular student groups
45 National Student Forum – Annual Report
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