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Repositioning Graduate Employability for Student Success

Doug Cole, Deputy Director of Employability, Nottingham Trent University and writing below in his former role as Head of Student Success, Advance HE shares his thoughts on the graduate employability agenda.

Skills, attributes, graduate outcomes and careers, all words and umbrella terms we might associate with the employability agenda today. This kind of discourse is commonplace in institutions across the globe on a daily basis. Yet I would argue that these dominant labels actually represent a socially constructed, fuzzy, often misunderstood, metrics driven and divided agenda, when what is actually required is a research informed, defined, repositioned and united approach to learning, employability and student success.

I am suggesting that this restricted and often isolated lexicon can be disengaging and divide stakeholders, rather than bringing them together. At its heart, if we break the concept of employability down into its constituent features, it is all about learning and a plethora of associated outcomes, but learning that can occur in a diverse range of contexts.

Despite the dominant, future workforce driven rhetoric, we need to view employability as going far beyond a simplistic set of skills or attributes, these terms mask the complexity, detail and nuances of what is really important for staff students, employers and future success.

Constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2007) was not written specifically for employability, but some of the principles start to tackle the fundamental challenges we are experiencing in this space. Constructive alignment gets us thinking about the desired learning outcomes or what I prefer to call learning objectives, first, developing these from the outset. So rather than us starting from the default position of thinking about activity first, i.e. placement, CV sessions, presentations, live projects etc. We need to flip our thinking and start with what each of these activities actually helps develop and then how these all piece together across the student journey, through our teaching and learning activities and assessment design.

By also revisiting the work of Jackson (2008) and life-wide learning, we again open up further opportunities for employability, with the potential to harness student learning across multiple learning spaces, ones that are already happening simultaneously across their lives, stretching beyond the formal education experience, effectively we can bring the ‘outside’ learning, ‘inside’, through transformative reflective practice embedded in the curriculum (Biggs & Tang, 2007).

This more holistic approach to capturing student learning, giving due consideration to those extra-curricular activities and more specifically, the benefits of engaging with these, presents a more inclusive and exciting opportunity that is also likely to impact on student retention as the learning journey becomes individualised and contextualised for each student.

Advance HE’s Embedding Employability in HE Framework aligns with both these transformative learning and teaching concepts. In addition the framework is flexible enough to bring people together in designing, planning and signposting opportunities that support ALL students, no matter what their programme, age, background, mode or level of study.

Ultimately I am suggesting a ‘rebranding and repackaging exercise’, one that starts with establishing a desired outcome that we can all agree on, to support students in being successful, whatever they decide to do after graduating.

By repositioning employability in this way, as a more inclusive, dynamic and fluid concept, one that is integral to our learning and teaching and education strategies, we immediately open up the potential to harness the collective (and limited) resources we have, to work in true partnership for maximum affect.

The Graduate Employability Conference is returning in September 2021. Click the link below to stay up to date!

Graduate Employability Conference 2021