Anyone speaking to prospective students at an Open Day will often be asked about career prospects. ‘If I do this degree what sort of job will I get, and what will I earn?’ is a question often heard. Universities are keen to answer this with detailed information, but the discussion is unlikely to extend to asking who should take responsibility for the desired output from the degree.
Students realise (we hope) that they cannot get a degree without engaging in some hard work, but do they also realise that they need to work hard on enhancing their employability? Just completing the degree will not necessarily be enough to obtain the desired job and salary.
Although it can certainly be argued that the student has to take some responsibility for their own employability, the university cannot be exempt from sharing that responsibility. The university lecturer has more knowledge than the student of what employers are looking for and of what will make the student more employable, and therefore the university has to provide the relevant opportunities.
What happens if the student does not engage with opportunities to enhance their employability?
This can be very frustrating for the university, especially given the time and effort that it takes to run opportunities. The approach we took at Aston was to embed employability in the curriculum.
We wanted our postgraduate students to have real experience of working on business problems, and to have real examples that they could talk about at recruitment interviews – explaining solutions that they created. Initially we provided opportunities to do this sort of work as an additional activity, outside of the curriculum, but we did not get a lot of engagement. So, we moved it into the curriculum.
The approach required us to work with businesses who were prepared to identify an issue that students could address. We then paired the issue with the topics being taught in a module, and linked the two together. At the start of the module the students were introduced to the business problem. They were given the opportunity to think about this as they were taught and, then, at the end of the module they were required to give their solution. The format for giving the solution was chosen by the business. It could be a written report, a presentation, or anything else.
The module leader marked the work, and the solution to the business problem was part of the assessment for the module. The business then saw as many of the solutions as they wanted. They could see them all or, particularly if it was a module with a large student population, they could choose to just see the best submissions. The student with the best solution, in the opinion of the business, was given a placement of at least four weeks.
Taking this approach, of putting the activity into the module and of making the work part of the assessment of the module, meant that the students did not have the choice of engaging. The businesses got some innovative solutions to the issue they wanted solving, and the students had completed something which would enhance their employability.
As well as gaining some really useful experiences, we also hope that students will gain more insight into the importance of engaging with employability opportunities. We hope that they understand how the experience they have gained makes it more likely that they will get their dream job and salary. Ultimately, the hope is that the student takes responsibility for their own employability.
So, whose responsibility is employability?
Should universities be looking at creative ways of ‘hiding’ employability in the curriculum to ensure that all students have the necessary exposure to employability opportunities, or should we allow students to take responsibility for their own engagement?
Kathy Daniels is Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor International at Aston University, and was previously Associate Dean: Learning and Teaching with responsibility for postgraduate programmes in the Business School. She was the instigator and Editor of a book about learning and teaching, written by colleagues in the Business School: Daniels, K, Elliott, C, Finlay, S and Chapman, C (2019) Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Perspectives from a Business School, Edward Elgar Publishing.