Why Employability Matters – to Lecturers

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“… It doesn’t!”

When I mentioned to a university colleague that I intended to write on why employability matters to lecturers, the response I received was - ‘but it doesn’t!’ This view is understandable given that universities employ trained careers advisors and run careers centres specifically to deal with employability.

… But it should

But perhaps I should have phrased my words more carefully, and said ‘why employability should matter to lecturers’. Of course, the reasons why employability matters as a general principle have been endlessly rehearsed. Clearly, it benefits individual students to make themselves employable in the marketplace, just as it benefits society to have cohorts of well-equipped, flexible graduates ready to step into positions of responsibility.

But why should this matter to lecturers? The above broad reasons aside, the answer lies in the recent shift towards the student-centered learning experience, and correspondingly, performance indicators as a measure of an institution’s ‘success’. In other words…

… look out for the TEF

We all remember the profound shift in the tectonic plates in UK HE a few years ago, with the removal of the block teaching grant and its replacement with university fees. Don’t underestimate the ramifications of that shift, still working through to this day. We’ve seen universities reconfigure teaching practices, increase contact hours, and undertake vast infrastructure projects in order to satisfy the fee-paying student  and compete in an increasingly open market. Student perspectives on their university experience have moved to centre stage: the National Student Survey (NSS) – which reports on recruitment success among other indicators - has changed from a peripheral student questionnaire to become an absolutely central concern of university managers.

But what will shortly take this to another level is the Teaching Excellence Framework, mooted to begin in 2017. A key indicator that will be used in the TEF is mooted to be graduate destinations (itself a measure of employability, taken in the round). And the TEF will determine university rankings, level of fees, and at the extremes, the survival or otherwise of subject areas, programmes, or departments. It is probably no coincidence that HEFCE’s  next conference will be on the subject of improving employability.

But how?

As if I haven’t got enough on my plate, sighed my (anonymous) interlocutor. So how, indeed, does the busy lecturer cram in yet another strand of learning into his or her teaching, and what might that look like?

Fundamentally, there are three types of skills a particular module or programme might facilitate. These are: subject-specific career planning, developing ‘enterprise’ skill sets, and using employer-driven resources.

Subject-specific skills are, of course, reinforced and developed throughout your teaching, so that students attain an agreed level of mastery of the field to pursue more expert knowledge in the field if they wish. Conversely, ‘enterprise’ or entrepreneurial skill sets require no particular technical expertise but are concerned with encouraging professionalism, resilience, and adaptability in a student. In a sense, these are transferable skills that should, in theory, allow for the development of specialist skills across a wide range of fields.

Subject-specific and enterprise skills are by now widely implemented across most university programmes. But the missing link here is really employer-driven resources. These include placements, internships, tasters, and other forms of hands-on experience offered by employers in your field. If you are in a subject area with plenty of industry contacts, now is the time to propose to your school or department that some sort of engagement with potential employers be embedded in a foundational module. You might also investigate whether the university itself offers some sort of internal placement scheme.

Remember that it is never too early to start to develop employability skills through this direct contact – and that not only will your undergraduates grow in confidence and direction, but employers too will feel that their perspective is taken on board by universities. Remember too that improving graduate employability in this way will soon be a key performance indicator in the TEF, and that that, in turn, will feed into your own subject’s long-term sustainability. And at the risk of appealing to self-interest, that is why employability ‘should’ matter to lecturers.

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