By Mike Grey
One of the recurring themes in our work with careers services across the UK is supporting them to identify how their employer engagement provision can evolve existing transactional relationships into strategic partnerships with target employers. As employability has moved higher up the agenda across UK HE, the appetite to deliver more meaningful activities with employers has increased.
A recent government report revealed that students are just as likely to talk to academic staff about their future career plans as their university careers service:
It is therefore vital that academics engage with employers and work in close partnership with their careers service to inform the discussions that they have with their students. I believe that careers services, by utilising their extensive networks and expertise to provide expert consultancy, can support academic departments to efficiently embed employer activities in the curriculum. However, it is important to recognise that whilst academics play a critical role, they also have huge burdens on their time – and whatever careers colleagues can do to make this quicker, easier and better for them and their students will be most effective.
Placements are one way to deliver this embedded employer activity but, although evidence strongly suggests that sandwich placements are the very best activity that a student can engage in at university to develop their employability and can positively impact social mobility, we must avoid viewing sandwich placements as the panacea. In many sectors, there simply is not the latent demand to deliver this model to scale. In many disciplines, embedding real-world projects are the best way to achieve mass engagement.
These real-world projects are often a particularly important gateway drug for widening participation students who disproportionally self-select out of traditional career development activities and do not have the same access to professional networks or levels of social capital that their more privileged peers benefit from.
Expanding the frequency of projects within courses based on a real-world brief or sponsored by an employer is an obvious means to create equitable access to employers and to positively impact social mobility.
Overcoming this self-selection challenge by embedded employer activity in the curriculum was also a key recommendation in a recent Bridge Group report on Social Mobility and University Careers Services:
‘Employers should deliver more curriculum-based interactions with universities, to place less emphasis on ‘prestigious’ events at which students self-select to attend. These more inclusive modes of engagement: address the problem of student self-selection and reduce the likelihood of only speaking with those already aware of a particular employer; can showcase what is at the heart of the relevant role rather than the marketing about it; responds to universities’ needs for real-life learning within the curriculum and develops relationships with academic members of staff who are key influencers on students’ career choices’.
A fantastic study led by Dr Ruth Bridgstock in Australia identified the need to foster a networked approach to graduate employability.
She identified 10 pedagogic principles for connectedness learning which included some interesting calls to arms for employer engagement within curriculum development and delivery, these principles included:
- The learning is authentic: it occurs in real professional contexts, involving professional activities and interactions with professionals. The may involve use of open, industry-authentic tools and technologies
- Industry partners provide input into designing a learning experience that is meaningful for them
-Partners are carefully selected for alignment with student and programme needs, and will benefit from/ find value in the partnership themselves
I believe that much of the skill set that employers demand is largely already embedded into courses, but too often these skills are buried within learning outcomes and not explicitly referenced consistently throughout delivery. Therefore, many students struggle to articulate them or link them to their application in the world of work. Increasing co-delivery with employers both in academic modules and career development activities can help students link their learning to its professional application so that they can effectively articulate their skills and demonstrate commercial awareness in recruitment processes.
This exposure to employers can be particularly important to support widening participation students to overcome deficits in social capital. Those with an aversion to clumsy sporting analogies, look away now... I often explained to senior managers, in universities where I worked with a high proportion of students from a widening participation background, that one of our key challenges was to train footballers to talk like rugby players. Footballers interviewed after a game will often provide quite a basic and cliched response to the questions posed to them, rugby players in contrast will usually provide a much more detailed, articulate and analytical response. This difference can be traced back to the background of professionals entering each sport: football is a traditionally working-class pursuit whereas most rugby players come from the middle classes with a significant proportion coming from private schools. It should come as no surprise that this social capital shows through beyond their playing careers. Many rugby players go onto corporate careers after they finish their playing career with professional services firms engaging with them at an early stage. It is a huge challenge for institutions with large widening participation cohorts to help students bridge the social capital divide.
I strongly believe that careers services supporting academic departments to create efficient models to work in partnership with employers in the curriculum is the only realistic way to achieve the scale and depth of career development activities required at most institutions to sufficiently impact social mobility. This also allows academic departments to develop localised solutions to localised problems, ideally utilising Careers Registration data to inform employer targeting and to broaden students’ horizons.
There are also a wide range of mechanisms to ensure the employer voice contributes to the curriculum development process. It is vital to engage employers in this way to ensure the relevance, currency and validity of courses. The benefits of this approach are wide-ranging but typically include:
- The development of industry relevant skills, knowledge and expertise
- Increased access to industry relevant tasks and assessment
- To build awareness of emerging technologies and employer skill requirements
- To provide access to industry standard resources and software
- The creation of work-based learning delivery that will match employer demand
Unfortunately, in some cases the level of employer involvement in these processes remains relatively rudimentary and involves trusted industry advisers ratifying already developed courses or an annual meeting of an advisory panel whose membership has remained static for many years.
In other institutions they take a much more holistic approach to ensure that courses are designed, as much as is feasible, to be closely aligned to the evolving needs of employers. The key to success is engaging employers in a meaningful way, so that they can inform the curriculum and careers service provision to efficiently contribute to student success.
However, there is a fundamental distinction between employer-informed practice and fully employer-driven practice: academic staff and careers professionals remain the experts in your institutional context and in models of robust and effective teaching and assessment. It is crucial to retain ownership of initiatives to ensure quality assurance processes can be managed effectively whilst accessing and harnessing the employer voice within the student journey.
Each institution has their own culture and barriers, but incremental steps can deliver marginal gains which will accumulate to deliver significant impact over time. The '10 Golden Minutes' model adopted by University of Hertfordshire to introduce key employers to student cohorts through the curriculum is a great example of an initial incremental step which can open up the dialogue between an employer and an academic department.
Whatever your institutional context, seeking to increase employer engagement activities beyond traditional milk round activities is a great way to deliver equitable career development for your students.
I would be very interested in your thoughts.
Head of University Partnerships