Employability as a concept is all over the news, mainly in regard to the skills of the graduates our institutions are producing Current reports: Employability reports
STEM degree provision and graduate employability: Wakeham review Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability: Shadbolt review
“Early findings indicate variations across employers within sectors over their demands – from pure technicians, to flexible team players, and all points in between.” QAA Viewpoint: Graduate Employability
87% of graduates in employment (Graduate Labour Market Statistics, BIS, 2015) 47% of graduates unprepared for work (Work Ready Graduates, 2015) 2% drop in number of 21 to 30-year-old graduates in skilled work, compared to previous year (FT, April 2016) Graduate employment rates returned to pre-financial crisis levels but average graduate pay fallen to £31,500 (FT, April 2016)
Demand from employers can be articulated in terms of broad graduate attributes, individual or groups of subjects, or specific skills acquired within subjects and programmes. These requirements may be associated with graduates in identified projects or programmes, levels of performance or qualification or aspects of the HE experience such as work placement and time abroad.
There are two areas in which the views of employers are consistent enough to inform educational policy on the level and nature of HE provision. Firstly, evidence suggests that employers consistently identify demand for STEM graduates, which arises from a broad requirement for numeracy and those specific technical skills. Secondly, employers are concerned about broad employability skills. In both cases, this perception derives from an expectation that there is a particular premium on these skills in the advanced and rapidly changing labour market of the future.
Evidence from employers suggests that concerns about graduate unemployment arising from the current economic climate will be short-term. Given the consistent message from employers about STEM and changing student aspirations in this area the government needs to ensure that student demand can be accommodated by an increase in provision. Employers also need to provide clear signals of the subjects, skills and attributes they particularly value, and that will position graduates most effectively in the labour market, to engage in the development and delivery of provision, for example through staff student placements.
There are some immediate areas of shortage, which can be identified at the level of skills required by specific employers and attributable to specific programmes in HE, such n-vivo techniques in the pharmaceutical industries and engineering skills required for nuclear industry. It should be possible for immediate skills requirements to be redressed through close working between individual and groups of employers, universities and colleges. This will, however, require responsiveness from HE providers, underpinned by public funding incentives, and employer funding at a level appropriate to the specificity of their requirements.
Employer demand, for the purpose of this work, is defined as the labour and skills required by employers, including business, academia, government and other sectors. Demand can be identified from employer surveys, labour market forecasts, or quantitative indicators such as salary or earnings data. Demand can be expressed in terms of a predicted shortage at some point in the future or an immediate and unfulfilled demand. It can be identified at national or regional levels, and framed in terms of sectors or occupations, rather than subjects in HE; demand may relate to specific courses and levels of study, or to skills attributable to one aspect of these. The link between an identified employer need and a subject or course within HE is rarely straightforward.
Importantly, employers are not a homogenous group. Research tends to capture the views of larger employers (or their representative bodies), which are able to respond to questionnaires and find the time to be interviewed. Employers’ views on what they need from HE varies by size of business and which level and type of manager is questioned
Going forward employability has been chosen as the theme by all but 6 institutions so far in 2015 – 2016.
Embedding in the curriculum
Employability mentoring programme e.g. linking students directly with first-hand advice and guidance about the career or industry they are interested in. business development units and other commercial initiatives
Employability strategy – e.g. University of Essex - The University's HER was published in December 2014. It found the University of Essex had made considerable efforts to implement a new Education Strategy across its departments and partners. This strategy is embedded in planning and quality assurance, something that contributes to six features of good practice identified by the review team. Improvements to the student experience in general, and the implementation of a new employability strategy in particular (specifically, the University's commitment to embed employer-focused learning in the curriculum), all contribute to a commendation for the enhancement of students' learning opportunities. An employability mentoring programme linking students directly with employers has provided an excellent opportunity for students to get first-hand advice and guidance about the career or industry they are interested in.
Graduate Training Assistant programme e.g. South Devon College - Once enrolled, students have access to support from two officers dedicated to the development of academic and information-related skills, through drop-in sessions. Some assessment is done through 'real-life' activities supported through links in industry. The Research Showcase, inaugurated in 2013-14, brings together students, academic staff and businesses to present and discuss work-relevant research activity. Enhancement initiatives include the competitive Student Research and Employability Scholarships, worth up to £1,000, awarded to final-year students to enhance their academic and/or employability prospects. Successful students will present their achievements at the Research Showcase. Another initiative, the Graduate Training Assistant programme, offers workshop space, materials and resources to creative arts graduates who, in return, support undergraduates with aspects of their practical work. Key success factors for the good practice include the maintenance of close and current contacts with employers. Student feedback on the Research and Practice modules, combined with an annual work-based learning report, lead to ongoing enhancement. Soft skills can be pervasive throughout a programme, delivered discretely, or designed-in to enhance a course.
Working with local employers formally engaging employers in quality assurance procedures developing programmes that meet the needs of industry - for example, the construction and pharmaceutical industries and employers such as JCB, Siemens and British Engines Work placements and paid internship or a free postgraduate course for any graduate not in graduate-level employment industry professionals who review and comment on the work of each student Guest speakers professional networking events - monitoring research students' employability rates. While careers services offer advice and guidance, skills development and employment opportunities, some providers report that the uptake of these services can be variable. Yet, on the whole, the world of work is well embedded in students' education, something that is particularly evident in providers that chose the employability theme. Drop in sessions Interview techniques - Performances in one institution are videoed for external examiners to assess and consider if they are not present. Long standing relationships with employers e.g. Conde Nash - At Conde Nash Publications for example, ‘the future employability of students is at the heart of the programmes and is embedded in the college culture.’ And at the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community the review team reported that ‘The employers who met the review team all had longstanding relationships with the Foundation and spoke enthusiastically about these relationships … based on a shared commitment to encouraging the acquisition of a variety of skills and a holistic understanding of professional practice.’ Local focus groups and surveys e.g. South Devon College a 'Step-up to HE' summer programme - South Devon College - Its HER in December 2014 resulted in two commendations and eight features of good practice, including 'initiatives which link academic and employability skills through curriculum design and delivery'. South Devon is a HEFCE 'cold spot', signifying low participation in higher education. South Devon College is committed to working with local businesses to raise participation, retain local talent, and develop a graduate economy. The College builds close working relationships with local employers, including through focus groups and surveys, and involves them in programme design, approval and delivery. Many students arrive through vocational entry routes, and pre-entry support is provided for them. This includes a 'Step-up to HE' summer programme and an extended two-week induction programme offering a range of Academic Skills development workshops.
From HEA employability framework. Critical scholars have also noted that employability discourses encourage would-be workers to construct and identify with identities that are determined by the values of corporate managers. As these change from organisation to organisation and over time, and are not based on the core values of individuals themselves, the process and experience can be alienating. So what is sold to students and job-seekers as a form of “empowerment” may actually be quite the opposite (Cremin, 2010).
To truly prepare students to enter the employment market, it is important to discuss these issues fully and openly. Knowledge about employee rights, explorations of personal values, and critical analysis should also have a place in this process. Otherwise, we risk encouraging students to believe that becoming and staying employed requires turning themselves into “products” that conform to ever-changing market desires, which is certainly not a concept that should be left unchallenged.
Lessons learnt from the QAA student employability theme
Lessons learnt from the QAA
student employability theme
Marieke Guy, Data Analyst
Annual Reviewers’ Conference
27th June 2016
“While employers report strong demand for graduate
talent, they continue to raise concerns about the
skills and job readiness of too many in the graduate
labour pool. Recent indications that the graduate
earnings gap is in decline, and that significant
numbers of graduates are going into non-graduate
jobs, reinforce the need for action. “
Fulfilling our Potential, BIS Green paper,
• Disliked by some students
• Soft skills; team working;
• Involves engagement with
staff, students and
• Need for broader discourse
UK Quality Code B4
Enabling Student Development and
• Chapter B4 requires that
providers ‘have in place, monitor
and evaluate arrangements and
resources which enable students
to develop their academic,
personal and professional
• B4 also offers a snapshot of how
the sector develops employability
skills and embeds employability
into their strategies.
• Student employability has been a theme in HER
• HER Findings 2014-15 - nearly 20% of the features
of good practice relate to students' employability
• APs showing real innovation in this area – many
features of good practice
Embedding in the curriculum
• Developing programmes that meet the needs of
• Soft skills pervasive throughout a programme,
delivered discretely, or designed-in to enhance a
• Employability strategy – e.g University of Essex.
• Graduate Training Assistant programme e.g. South
• Offer student Personal Development Planning
Working with local employers
• Engaging employers in quality assurance procedures
• Work placements and paid internship e.g. Aston
• Industry professionals who review and comment on the
work of each student
• Guest speakers and professional networking events
• Drop in sessions and interview techniques
• Long standing relationships with employers e.g. Conde
• Local focus groups and surveys e.g. South Devon
College - Step-up to HE summer programme
Good practice case
Royal School of Needlework. BA (Hons) Hand Embroidery for Fashion, Interiors, Textile Art. Photographer: Tas Kyprianou.
Good practice examples
• Embedding key graduate attributes into courses
• Close cooperation between careers and
• Industry experience as a requirement of staff
• Events that help to network students into particular
Good practice case studies
• Royal School of
• University of
• South Devon
• University of Essex
Providers encouraged to…
• Agree strategic approach
• Develop practical support and advice for students e.g.
CV writing, mock interviews, presentation support.
• Engage with employers on course design, programme
reviews, guest lecturing
• Run networking events
• Offer work placements, internships and mentoring.
Shift work element of sandwich course to end
• Consider information collection and analysis to gauge
success, alumni work
• Nurture soft skills and confidence building
• Tensions between what employers and providers want
• Changing work environment, employers not
• Difficult to link identified employer need and course
• Trying to speak the same language (staff, students,
employers) – perceptions, interpretations
• Variations in technical or theoretical innovation
• Consistency – reaching all students
• Challenges of real-world activity e.g. costs
Questions for discussion
• How can providers be encouraged to continue to
develop a strategic approach to employability?
• How can employability be better embedded in
• How can providers be supported in information
collection to gauge success?
• How can the insights found through this thematic
area feed in to other areas for development, such
as widening participation?
Quality Enhancement Network
• Employer Engagement, Employability and Higher
• Three locations:
– 18 May 2016 - Kingston College
– 23 May 2016 - Coventry University
– 25 May 2016 - Manchester College
• Outputs can be shared with subscribers
• Skills for employability (QAA)
• Enterprise and entrepreneurship guidance (QAA)
• Education for sustainable development: Guidance for
UK higher education providers (QAA)
• Employability Initiatives in Universities and
Colleges (QAA, Warwick, AGR)
• Student employability profiles (HEA, CIHE)
• Employability framework (HEA)
• Employability booklet (jobs.ac.uk)