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How does this degree make me employable?

“Should I apply for university or an apprenticeship?” A few of us volunteers from the charity “MyBigCareer” were conducting individual interviews at a big careers event at the NEC in Birmingham early in March (“What Career Live? What University Live?”), and this was the most frequent question put by the young people whom we met. There are no simple answers, as individuals have individual needs, but I feel that, if each potential applicant conducts enough research into the options, a gut feeling will ultimately suggest the right way forward. A careers adviser can facilitate this, not least by pointing out that, unlike a generation ago, when there was a clear choice between job or university, there are many more options now, including the recent development of Degree Apprenticeships and other combinations of work placement and university study; and that it is possible to apply for apprenticeships at the same time as submitting a UCAS form.

In this age of high student fees a sensible potential applicant should ask “What am I getting for my money?” (not “What is being served up to me as a customer?”) and “What does it lead to?”. I think that universities should provide better information on the detail of their learning environment (e.g., the size and frequency of tutorials/seminars and brief films to show what these actually look like); and should reveal employment outcomes. They are obliged to submit to the Higher Education Statistics’ Agency (HESA) details on graduate destinations by subject cohort six months after graduation. Only a few universities, such as Bath and Surrey, post full results on their websites, including the number of graduates for each subject who are unemployed or whose destination is unknown. As many students opt for postgraduate Master’s degrees or post-uni. gap year travel, I would prefer to see graduate destination data published for three years rather than six months after graduation, but publishing the current data would help both applicants to apply more confidently and universities to attract more committed students.

It is to universities’ credit that they have recently placed much more emphasis in their prospectuses and websites on employability, especially since the 2012 rise in tuition fees. It is no longer just a page or two about CV or interview workshops, with a star graduate or two illustrated as a role model. Best practice now includes opportunities to take a structured award, such as the UEA Award, to develop and highlight curricular and extra-curricular skills development; practical help offered in securing vacation internships; support for entrepreneurship, including initial funding for businesses.
In addition, more universities are now offering work placement options in more subjects as part of “sandwich” degree programmes. These sandwiches are not simply packaged for students: the students have to apply for a job. One university’s presentation many years ago convinced me that applicants looking for the tastiest options should ask of a potential university “sandwich” programme:

  • Is there a dedicated placement office (preferably one for the relevant faculty)?
  • Is the application system introduced in Year 1, with guidance notes and CV preparation?
  • What support is given to individual students during the application process in Year 2?
  • What is the full list of companies that students have been placed with in the last couple of years?
  • How many students did not opt for and how many did not achieve a placement in the last couple of years? What support was given to the latter?
  • What responsibility and support is given by the placement companies to students?
  • To what extent does the university monitor students during placements and offer support in dealing with any problems?

I remember at Loughborough hearing a very impressive new graduate talk about his placement year with an IT company in Nice: he was given a good level of responsibility, and, when he broke his leg playing football, was given immediate support by both the company and the university. Similarly, I was pleased to see in Brunel’s Design School a board with photographs of all the students out on placement, together with the name of their company. When it was still a College of Advanced Technology, Brunel invented “sandwich” placements in the 1950s for engineering students, and those universities with an established reputation among employers for providing good students might be considered to give their students an edge, as long as previous support remains in place.

There are, however, interesting alternatives to the “thick sandwich” (a one year placement, typically Year 3 of a 4 year programme) or the “thin sandwich” (two half-year placements, possibly one in Year 2 and one in Year 3). Placement years can be considered disruptive for those becoming settled at university (e.g., the problem of finding appropriate accommodation for Year 4 or for two half-years), and I have heard from admissions’ staff that many students lack the confidence to get out of their “comfort zone” by going away on placement for a year, even if they are likely to enhance their employability. At some universities some subjects, such as Art and Design, include live projects as an integral part of their degree programme; and there is an increase in contact with industry (e.g., seminars in some subjects with relevant practitioners), voluntary opportunities (e.g., teaching or “pro bono” law advice) and fieldwork (e.g., in different local religious communities). Moreover, there are interesting new schemes with regional employers emerging, to offer a period of employment to new graduates: UEA’s Graduate Trainee Management Scheme is one example.

Quite apart from such direct experience of the workplace, whether as part of a degree programme or in vacation internships, it is reasonable for potential university applicants to consider how becoming a university student might in itself prepare them for employment. I have come across many studies on “employability skills” in the last 25 years, but a 2014 report (“Ready for Work”) from Impetus, a Private Equity Foundation “committed to transforming the lives of 11-24 year olds from disadvantaged  backgrounds”, particularly caught my eye. It identified “six essential capabilities that young people are expected (by employers) to demonstrate in order to get and keep a job:

  1. Self-aware
    “Takes responsibility for themselves and others, exhibits self-control, accountability for one’s actions, does not shift blame and recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses.”
  2. Receptive
    "Willing to address weaknesses, takes feedback and advice, open to new ideas and working in different ways, open-minded, patient and flexible.”
  3. Driven
    “Displays a positive attitude, applies oneself consistently, reliable, motivated, punctual, well-organised, hard-working and goes the extra mile.”
  4. Self-assured
    “Has good levels of self-esteem, willing to ask questions and seek more information, can work alone without clear direction, displaying physical signs of self-esteem, such as a firm handshake.”
  5. Resilient
    “Copes with rejection and set-backs, learns from mistakes, open to constructive criticisms, determined to overcome obstacles, perseveres and does not panic under pressure.”
  6. Informed
    "Has an understanding of the job market, able to search for job vacancies, does background research, understands office etiquette, well-presented, can effectively describe their achievements verbally and has a representative CV.”

Those of us working in schools and FE colleges would doubtless like to think that we are already helping our students to develop these capabilities. However, I believe that an undergraduate degree programme can contribute a lot in their further development. The greater focus on self-directed independent study is a major factor: whether it be the need to establish a habit of intellectual curiosity, to learn research skills and defend one’s conclusions against others; to be determined in tackling problem areas, and, if need be, to ask for help; or to develop self-discipline in organising one’s commitments. However, working and, in many cases, living in a university environment where students and academic and other staff come from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures is, I suggest, a unique opportunity to enhance the qualities outlined by this report. It is incumbent not only on the individual student to face up fully to the challenges and potential rewards (not just the degree certificate at the end!) but also on the university to provide the structure and atmosphere in which this might happen. My only reservation is about the “firm handshake”: I practise a handshake with my Sixth Formers at the beginning of every interview, as a few of them at first shake so firmly that they will probably have antagonized any arthritic interviewer before they have uttered a word!

Those of us who entered university a few decades ago in the last millennium could afford to start thinking about life beyond university in our final year. Today’s students cannot. If they decide to apply to university, they are more likely to flourish there, if they apply for the subjects that will most interest them rather than opting for less interesting subjects that they consider more likely to get them a job. If they do appropriate research on how their chosen universities might support them in finding work-related opportunities and consider how being part of a university might develop their “essential capabilities”, they can enter university confident about securing an appropriate job at the end.

Posted by Philip Rogerson on Tue, 22 Aug 2017

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