Amelia Hodgson

Hot competition 

So you earned your qualification, now what? It is no longer enough to have a degree to guarantee a job. While the expansion of higher education is positive it does mean more competition for graduates in the job market. With the cost of a degree rising, students are rightly expecting a return on their investment, yet, only 35% of students in the UK believed that university was value for money in 2017, down from 53% five years before. Universities must therefore equip students with valuable skills that make them employable. 

Is it a University’s place? 

Debates rage about what universities are for, with some railing against the notion that degrees must represent value for money. This is a valid discussion and certainly universities should not only serve economic needs. But, if universities are to be a genuine and collaborative public good, they must respond to the hunger for employability skills from both students and employers. Equally, students must be able to prioritise developing these skills alongside their academic studies. 

Turn the extracurricular into the curricular 

Even where opportunities are provided, students do not prioritise employability skills due in part to emphasis on grades rather than extracurricular activities. Ideally, employability skills must be woven into the curriculum and be credit bearing, or be formally recognised by universities in other ways. Otherwise, the opportunities are accessed largely by engaged students and neglected by those already struggling or with other commitments like part-time work. Those who would benefit the most slip through the net, exaggerating existing disadvantage, 

What does this look like in practice? Tailored and relevant

It is key that employability skills must be tailored to the area of study. This may not preclude more traditional offerings like ‘presentation skills’ workshops, but the emphasis should be on the practical application of the academic knowledge learned within the degree in the real world. This is especially so in subject areas where job prospects are less clear, like within the social sciences. Think ‘Problem solving within international development contexts’ or ‘Project management for policy development’. 

There is a huge appetite from students and employers for work-based learning in the form of internships or research placements. As credit-bearing parts of a degree students are able to commit to these opportunities, which develop their academic learning in applied settings. Other incentives include programmes of workshops and activities, which formally recognise and encourage extracurricular activities. These kinds of programmes and work-based learning opportunities galvanise links between academia and the wider world, giving students a solid foundation on which they can base their careers. 

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