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«Geoff Mason * Gareth Williams ** Sue Cranmer ** * National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London ** Institute of Education, University of ...»

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Employability Skills Initiatives in Higher Education:

What Effects Do They Have On Graduate Labour

Market Outcomes?

Geoff Mason *

Gareth Williams **

Sue Cranmer **

* National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London

** Institute of Education, University of London

September 2006

Abstract

This paper makes use of detailed information gathered at university department level,

combined with graduate survey data, to assess the impact of different kinds of employability skills initiative on graduate labour market performance. We find that structured work experience has clear positive effects on the ability of graduates, firstly, to find employment within six months of graduation and, secondly, to secure employment in ‘graduate-level’ jobs. The latter job quality measure is also positively associated with employer involvement in degree course design and delivery. However, a measure of departmental involvement in explicit teaching and assessment of employability skills is not significantly related to labour market outcomes.

Corresponding author:

Geoff Mason National Institute of Economic and Social Research 2 Dean Trench St Smith Square London SW1P 3HE Email: gmason@niesr.ac.uk

1. Introduction 1 In the wake of rapid growth in higher education (HE) participation in the UK, and the increase in global market competition experienced by many employers, UK universities came under intense pressure to equip graduates with more than just the academic skills traditionally represented by a subject discipline and a class of degree.

A number of reports issued by employers’ associations and HE organisations urged universities to make more explicit efforts to develop the ‘key’, ‘core’, ‘transferable’ and/or ‘generic’ skills needed in many types of high-level employment (AGR 1993, 1995; CBI 1989, 1994, 1999; CVCP 1998; CIHE 1996).

From the perspective of employers, ‘employability’ often seems to refer to ‘workreadiness’, that is, possession of the skills, knowledge, attitudes and commercial understanding that will enable new graduates to make productive contributions to organisational objectives soon after commencing employment. Indeed, studies of employer demand for graduates in engineering and science disciplines have found that appropriate work experience and evidence of commercial understanding rank highly as selection criteria because of commercial pressures to seek graduates who will not require long ‘learning curves’ when they start employment (Mason, 1998, 1999).

However, in an extended discussion of the employability concept, Hillage and Pollard (1998:11) put more emphasis on individuals possessing the capability ‘to move selfThis article draws on a study of employability skills teaching in UK universities which was kindly supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); however, HEFCE is not responsible for any views expressed in the article. We are grateful to all the university academics and careers staff who participated in interviews. We would also like to thank Judy Akinbolu at HEFCE for providing the First Destinations /Combined Student Module Record data and Graeme Rosenberg and sufficiently within the labour market to realise potential through sustainable employment’. In a similar vein Harvey and Morey (2003) highlight the skills which graduates need in order to manage their own careers and those which will enable them to continue learning throughout their working lives These broader conceptions of employability partly reflect the influence of the 1997 Dearing Report which identified a set of key skills which were ‘relevant throughout life, not simply in employment’ (NCIHE, 1997, Para. 9.18) Dearing defined these skills as Communication, Numeracy, IT and Learning how to learn at a higher level and recommended that provision of such skills should become a central aim for higher education.

These recommendations have been backed up by a number of government-funded initiatives and programmes designed to encourage the development of such skills within HE and, more generally, to enhance the employability of graduates, for example, the Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative and HE ‘Development Projects’ covering areas such as Key Skills, Careers Guidance and Work Experience.2 Within HE the generic skills needed to enhance graduate employability (whether defined in terms of immediate work-readiness or longer-term career prospects) are now typically seen as including the skills emphasised by Dearing and also Literacy, Problem-solving skills and Team-working skills. In addition, the employability skills agenda is commonly defined to include ‘Understanding of the world of work’ which John Thompson at HEFCE for detailed comments and advice throughout the HEFCE project.

Responsibility for any errors is ours alone.

For overviews and case studies of a number of employability skills development projects of this kind see: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/employability/ and http://www.ltsn.ac.uk/genericcentre/ typically refers to knowledge about the ways in which organisations work, what their objectives are and how people in those organisations do their jobs (Coopers and Lybrand, 1998).

University responses to this agenda typically include modifications to existing course content (sometimes in response to employer suggestions), the introduction of new courses and teaching methods and expanded provision of opportunities for work experience – all intended to enhance the development of employability skills and/or ensure that the acquisition of such skills is made more explicit. In some cases university departments have sought to ‘embed’ the desired skills within courses; in other departments students are offered ‘stand-alone’ skills courses which are effectively ‘bolted on’ to traditional academic programmes (ibid). In fact many university departments now use a mix of embedded and stand-alone teaching methods in their efforts to develop employability skills.





As further evidence of the growing importance attached to graduate employability, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has developed measures of university performance which include indicators of graduate labour market outcomes, for example, the probability of new graduates finding employment after a specified time interval (HEFCE, 2001, 2002, 2003).

In this paper we report on a new empirical investigation of the impact of different kinds of HE employability skills initiative on similar measures of graduates’ labour market performance. In particular, we make use of detailed information gathered at index.asp university department level to develop innovative measures of the extent to which departments engage in teaching and assessment of employability skills, and the extent of employer involvement in course design and delivery as well as measures of student participation in work experience through sandwich courses and related programmes.

The study is based on research visits to a total of 34 departments in eight different universities between January-April 2001 and an analysis of First Destination Survey data for some 3589 graduates from the sample departments in the year 2000.

The article is ordered as follows: Section 2 describes the extent and nature of employability skills teaching in sample departments and the new measures used to capture this activity. Section 3 considers theoretical reasons why employability skills development might be expected to contribute to improved matches between graduate job-seekers and employers. Section 4 outlines the empirical models used to explore the links between employability skills development and graduate labour market outcomes. Section 5 presents the main findings of this analysis. Section 6 draws some conclusions.

2. Employability Skills Teaching in Sample Departments In order to gather in-depth information on employability skills teaching and learning in a cross-section of subjects and universities, semi-structured interviews were held with 60 academic staff and 10 careers staff in 34 departments in eight universities comprising four pre-1992 (Old) and four post-1992 (New) universities (Table 1).

These departments covered five subject areas -- Biological Sciences, Business Studies, Computer Science/Studies, Design Studies and History – which were selected in order to obtain a mix of traditional academic subjects, recently-established and/or rapidly growing vocational subjects and courses where First Destinations data point to a wide range of experiences of initial entry to employment. As shown in Table 1, the Biological Sciences, Business Studies and Computing departments were spread across a mix of Old and New Universities. By contrast, the sample History departments were all in Old Universities while the Design departments were all in New Universities.

TABLE 1 ABOUT HERE

The interviews sought respondents’ views on definitions of employability; learning, teaching and assessment of employment-related skills and knowledge; employer involvement with programmes of study; student work experience; and other employability initiatives. The findings revealed wide differences between departments and between subjects in the ways that teaching staff sought to provide employability skills-enhancing experiences. Some differences of approach between pre-1992 and post-1992 universities could be discerned but, in the three subjects that were offered in both categories of institution, there was no clear distinction between Old and New Universities.

In Biological Sciences, all respondents acknowledged their responsibility for producing graduates who were employable both within the Biological Sciences field and outside it. Most Biological Science departments had been quick off the mark in adapting courses to focus more on teaching communications, presentation and other generic skills. Conversely, while the History respondents reported a similar awareness of the wide range of occupations entered by their graduates, they still tended to focus on equipping their graduates with the skills they saw as essential for a good historian in the belief that these skills themselves were transferable into diverse occupations (for example, the skills involved in information processing and the development of coherent and convincing arguments).

On the whole, respondents in Computer Studies, Business Studies and Design departments were more likely to see their subjects as vocationally orientated.

However, there were variations in how this influenced the delivery of employability skills teaching. For example, the Design courses all explicitly sought to equip students with employability skills, in part because many of their graduates enter a very competitive economic environment with many small enterprises in which graduates are required to have a range of management and business skills as well as technical proficiency in design (Blackwell and Harvey, 1999). In Business Studies departments specialist subject knowledge and theoretical knowledge were seen as intrinsically related to the development of the generic skills needed for general management roles.

By contrast, a relatively low emphasis on employability skills in several Computer Science departments was attributed to high labour market demand for IT graduates at the time of the interviews. Most of the Computing departments actively sought to combine specialist knowledge teaching with the development of generic skills but it was reported that the easy routes into employment for Computer Science graduates led to some resistance from students to engaging with broader employability skills.



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