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Advance HE publishes literature review on employability

28 Sep 2021 | Roger Dalrymple We've published a review of the literature on employability from 2016-21 as part of our six-month longitudinal project for the Connect Benefit Series 2021-22, Student Success.

Student Success is a six-month longitudinal project for the Connect Benefit Series 2021-22 focusing on access, retention, attainment and progression, and embedding employability in higher education.

Advance HE has published Employability: A Review of the Literature 2016-2021 which aims to identify specific impact and evidence in relation to embedding employability within higher education, predominantly since the most recent Advance HE literature review from 2016

In this blog, project lead Roger Dalrymple shares some reflections on the experience of surveying a rich and fast-moving field for the literature review on employability 2016-21.

Summer 2021 was certainly a memorable time to be immersed in the peer-reviewed literature on graduate employability. With the ongoing pandemic conditions affecting whole sections of the labour market and disrupting the working and studying patterns of the current and future workforce, the quest to find out ‘what works’ in employability took on additional layers of meaning – and perhaps a renewed sense of urgency. 

Starting in late spring 2021, a team of Oxford Brookes academics took up this task: Dr Andrea Macrae from the Department of English and Modern Languages, Dr Maia Pal from the School of Social Sciences, Dr Shirley Shipman from the School of Law, and myself from the School of Education. Making use of the Oxford Bodleian Library SOLO database to retrieve relevant literature, it soon became clear how this important field has burgeoned still further in the period since Advance HE published their previous review in 2016. The evidence-based literature on employability increasingly shows international reach and longitudinal scope, with many examples of long-term cohort studies, international comparative studies, and analysis of employability outcomes in relation to large-scale data sets. Likewise, the same period has seen a wealth of case studies and discipline-specific employability research undertaken.

Drawing on this rich field, our search criteria identified 580 studies as in-scope for our review. These we subdivided into the categories of Demonstrable Impact, Emerging Impacts and Evaluations, and Broader Horizons.  Within this body of material we discerned nine dominant themes, some of which we preview in the four podcasts linked to this blog and which we unpack in more detail in the review itself. These included: measuring and measures of employability (where there was encouraging evidence of innovation and openness in terms of who gets to define employability and how we ‘measure’ it); the embedded or non-embedded nature of employability learning (where there was increasing evidence of novel forms of collaboration within universities and across stakeholder groups in delivering employability interventions and pedagogies); and inequalities and differential opportunities (where, for this member of the research team at least, there were some important new caveats brought to light about the extent to which an apparently standard employability offer may in fact be differentially available to students. This was an important takeaway in a summer when a much contracted labour market meant that those graduates who could demonstrate completion of a recent internship or placement would likely have a competitive advantage for the reduced number of vacancies available.

One further theme we highlight in the podcasts is the persistence of critiques of employability in the literature, where a case is made for greater autonomy in defining the concept, in line with more individual and less neoliberal notions of meaning and value. Again, all this made for resonant reading over the second pandemic-affected summer, showing signs of promise for new directions of travel for the graduate labour market in the post-pandemic landscape.

Advance HE is planning a number of dissemination events linked to the review including the aforementioned podcast series and an upcoming webinar on 14 October 2021. We look forward to further discussion with colleagues, students and stakeholders in these and other contexts, and to supporting the next collective steps in developing employability learning as a central and vital element in the higher education student experience.


Roger Dalrymple is Associate Dean: Student Outcomes at Oxford Brookes University where he researches in Higher Education pedagogy and employability, and in English in Education. With Stuart Norton, he has recently co-edited, Employability: Breaking the Mould. Details of his most recent work in English in Education can be found here.

Advance HE members can download Employability: A Review of the Literature 2016-2021 here

Employability: A Review of the Literature 2016-2021 is part of the Connect Benefit Series - Student success. Ahead of its publication, a series of supporting podcasts have also been released. 

Find out more about the Connect Benefit Series during 2021-22 here


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