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Improving Graduate Employability: A Q&A with Stuart Norton from Advance HE

What tips do you have for higher education Institutions on how they can develop and improve their employability strategy?

I think there are some areas of focus that I’ll come to but I believe we can often jump to this stage without considering the environment and context of where we are – the micro environment is just as important as the macro and sometimes more so, dependent on where students are drawn from etc. So my biggest tip would be to start at the beginning – getting back to basics – what is the context and your environment – recognising your resources, strengths, capabilities etc. are important – as are understanding any weaknesses that may be present so that you can mitigate against these.

Once you have this solid foundation HE providers can begin to identify options – critically at this stage is to enable a voice to all stakeholders – buy in and fidelity to the project are going to be of acute importance: you can have a fabulous strategy but if this isn’t owned and shaped by the individuals involved it will feel disjointed and you risk gaining buy-in – so for me, an absolute must is having a strong implementation plan. Once you’ve identified and refined your strategy, considered the best way forward and run your decision making process your communication and cascade of the strategy are of critical importance – so back to basics and implementation are paramount – as for a focus on employability, I think thought needs to go into three key areas:

  • Resources – do you have the resources that you need to deliver your strategic aims?
  • Embedding employability – what does it look like, where is it and how do students and staff recognise and engage with this – and how does this relate to your external stakeholders too?
  • Work related learning – to include authentic assessment – and to be inclusive for all.

What work is Advance HE doing surrounding graduate employability?

Advance HE support learning and teaching within HE through a range of thought leadership and sharing and connecting – we recognise that employability, as part of our student success framework, is not a standalone component - so throughout a range of work we will draw on the thematic areas of student engagement, assessment and feedback, retention and attainment, internationalisation, flexible learning & employability. Specifically, scheduled for December this year, we have a case study series on employability with over 15 examples drawn from across the sector; this follows on from our employability symposium in April earlier this year. We have also recently launched Advance HE connect, an online platform that has a specific employability network within it -  The aim of this space is to enable all participants to share, connect and collaborate with a specific focus on employability. Overtime this site will host an array of useful resources, research, guidance and case studies linked to employability. The community is specifically designed to remain flexible, evolving and developing – to be shaped by the community going forward.

We also run a range of bespoke consultancy looking at the employability provision of HEI providers, these have included the careers service and have ranged from guidance and advice to employability workshops, strategy development and curriculum review.

What do you think about the Augar Review and its potential implications for graduates and HE institutions?

I think, specifically regarding employability, what stands out to me  is that currently over half of students choose arts, humanities and social sciences degrees - and these subjects are highly valued by business and public sector employers. Therefore, for me, the issue of using graduate earnings in isolation is hazardous – we are aware that there could be any number of reasons why a graduate may have relatively low earnings but how do we measure wider significant economic and social value for the UK?  Do we consider wellbeing? Happiness? Choice? Those entering public services such as nursing, policing, teaching etc. will have their earnings constrained by the public sector pay policy – and what about those starting their own business? What longitudinal measures are available to record what wider jobs that may go on to create – or indeed wider wealth for the UK economy?

I’m aware the report brings the creative arts in to focus and raises questions around value for money – yet do we, or can we, consider the cultural value of degrees in these subjects or the wider contribution to the UK economy?

I think, given wider timings of political activity, specifically around Brexit and the Conservative leadership race, it is hard to consider what impact the Augar review will truly have – what I would like to see is that any new funding regime considers the wide-ranging economic, social and cultural value which degrees provide.

What do you think needs to be the focus for graduate employability going into the future?

A practical approach, a step away from some of the ongoing academic debates over language, definitions, reductive opinions around the topic and a focus on what works – adopting an evidence base, engaging with stakeholders, authentic assessment, work related learning – and, fundamentally, ensuring that any offer is inclusive. At the same time ensuring that students can recognise, develop, capture and record their development across a programme in order that they can articulate this to employers or apply this through their chosen future, be that PG study, entrepreneurship, portfolio careers etc.

Employability can be enhanced by developing a wider set of attributes, values and behaviours - It is the responsibility of all higher education institutions to ensure their students are developing this wider set of skills and understanding alongside subject knowledge and technical competencies - how their programmes and extra-curricular activities contribute to this and recognising what can be developed further to achieve this.


This Q&A was conducted and summarised by Tatiana de Berg.

Stuart Norton will be speaking at the Graduate Employability Conference on 19th June, you can find out more on our website here: