Deconstructing the embedded employability narrative
The employability and employment outcomes of graduates from our universities has become a central feature of contemporary Higher Education Policy and regulatory scrutiny by the Office for Students (OfS).
Recent coverage in the popular media suggests that how universities tackle improved graduate outcomes is not only a student centred or strategic consideration, but arguably is integral to the credibility and future sustainability of some of our diverse subject disciplines across the sector.
How we engage students with their future is therefore a topical debate, with widespread consensus that it must start within the curriculum. However, how we do this effectively is still the subject of much conjecture – all of which have informed our approach at Leeds Beckett University.
The case for an embedded approach to employability
As student and graduate numbers in the UK have increased, we have arguably seen an impact upon the ‘value’ of a degree as a distinguishing feature for graduates pursuing their career.
In his book, ‘The Graduate Jobs Formula’, Dr Paul Redmond described this as a shift from E=Q (or Employment = your Qualification) to E=Q+WE+SxC (or Employment = your Qualification + Work Experience + a Strategy x Contacts) (Redmond, 2010). Fundamentally, in a competitive graduate labour market having a degree is no longer a differentiator, and as such students need to have a more comprehensive suite of experiences as well as an inherent proactivity in the pursuit of their career.
More recently colleagues such as Adele Brown and Dr Kate Daubney have advocated that the ‘degree has to be enough’ (Brown, 2021) by surfacing and ‘extracting employability’ (Daubney, 2020) from within the curriculum. However, these concepts have on occasion been subject to misinterpretation, mutating into a narrative of ‘the curriculum alone has to be enough’. Fundamentally, this is not what Brown or Daubney were meaning, but rather that we need to use the curriculum to make employability ‘structurally unavoidable’ (Daubney, 2020) rather than suggesting that employability must be exclusively delivered within the curriculum.
Beyond the curriculum
Our students come to university with such a rich and diverse blend of experiences which are enhanced during their time with us through engagement with co and extra-curricular pursuits. To complement these, university careers and employability services are working with external stakeholders to inform and develop value added employability enhancing opportunities which may not always sit within the curriculum but can complement and enrich our students’ career readiness, aspirations, and confidence in transitioning from university.
It is widely acknowledged that most graduate recruiters are ‘degree agnostic’. Indeed, some actively pursue graduates from beyond degree disciplines directly associated with their sector or profession – recognising the value of a diverse graduate workforce with differentiated technical, research, analytical and cognitive skills. Indeed, the Future Skills Report published by Kingston University (2022), suggests that graduates need agility, flexibility and a breadth of experiences to succeed in the labour market.
In this climate it is incumbent upon higher education providers to offer our students opportunities to gain real value-added experiences beyond their subject, even encouraging interdisciplinary connectivity – a chance to work alongside other students and colleagues with different skill sets and abilities.
The Leeds Beckett University approach
At Leeds Beckett University, whilst we are striving to surface/embed employability across our curriculum through initiatives like our academic employability prospectus, it is not the sole focus of our aspirations for our students.
Our Employability Implementation Framework set ambitious objectives to ensure employability within the curriculum makes our students careers education and development ‘structurally unavoidable’ by driving a ‘culture’ of employability across our staff and student community. Furthermore, the Framework embraces a ‘whole student lifecycle approach’ to employability.
In building the culture, our ambition is that we blur the boundaries of in-curricular and co/extra-curricular employability learning and experiences. In doing so we can help our students to make ‘employability sense’ of their broader experiences, diversify their perceptions of opportunity, and through effective external collaborations, challenge employer perceptions as to the value of our diverse subject portfolio and disciplines. In this way, we confront the binary and reductive popular rhetoric questioning the value of the rich and life enhancing experiences such diverse subject disciplines in higher education can bring to our students, society and the economy.
Mark Stow, Director of Business Engagement, Employability & Careers, Leeds Beckett University
Redmond, P. (2010). The Graduate Jobs Formula
Brown, A. (2021), The degree has to be enough, [LinkedIn] [15/09/2023]
Daubney, K. (2020). “Teaching employability is not my job!”: redefining embedded employability from within the higher education curriculum. Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Emerald Publishing Limited
Kingston University. (2022). Future Skills – league table 2022