What’s in a degree? The importance of embedding employability in education

Raise your hand if you’ve completed a university degree.

Keep it hand raised if you believe your University degree fully prepared to face the full array of workplace challenges.

Still raised if the experience equipped you beyond the technical knowledge and skills; arming you with the mentality, capability and interpersonal skills to thrive professionally and personally.

In case anyone still has their hands raised, you can lower them.

The careers landscape is changing. Organisations no longer consider degrees to be the unique selling point it once was. Years of study are seen as proof of commitment rather than the cultivation of invaluable knowledge and expertise. Employers are looking beyond a 1:1 and seeking graduates who are capable of self-management, teamwork and are versatile to changing needs. Those who have already begun to develop skills such as communication, critical thinking, decision making and leadership.

Universities, the repositories of knowledge and graduate incubators, are feeling the effects of this shift. Indicators such as the National Student Survey (NSS) give students a voice in expressing their holistic satisfaction with their University experience. University rankings are placing increased focus on graduate employability, illuminating shortcomings that could previously have been hidden through good reputation or branding. Employers are seeking graduates prepared to take the next step in personal and professional development, not begin their journey.

The competencies and responsibilities demanded is requiring talent entering the workforce to be more prepared, capable and adaptable than ever. The digital age and the pace of innovation means knowledge and expertise becomes obsolete on a daily basis. To avoid obsolescence, graduates need to be adaptive to change. In order to be prepared and adaptive, they need to have the mindset of life-long learning and continuous development instilled early in their attitude and behaviour. It must be part of the fabric of their communications, interactions and environment. Universities play a pivotal role in creating this internal and external ecosystem.

Adapting to a constantly changing world presents extensive challenges for any institution, and Universities are not immune. They must be able to recognise and forecast trends trends then adjust appropriately. To recognise trends, they must be outward looking and forward thinking. To adjust, they must be ready to embrace change. For change to be successful, it must be aligned to the University vision and core values – the rationale for change has to be consistent, credible and believed in.

One approach embraced by Universities to acknowledge and communicate recognition of this responsibility is through the use of a “Graduate Attributes” framework. Graduate Attributes go beyond disciplinary expertise or technical knowledge. They describe the qualities, skills and understanding that a student should develop throughout the course of their study. Although each University differs in terms of the number, articulation and description of their Graduate Attributes, the underlying message is the same: by attending [insert University], you are better prepared and more likely to proceed.

Graduate Attributes provide a valuable framework for identifying key competencies that Universities should develop on their students outside their curriculum. What is less clear is how to incorporate these Graduate Attributes into the various aspects of the student experience. Key questions from staff, some key questions include but are not limited to:

  1. What kind of learning activities are required to develop these attributes?
  2. How are the attributes imbedded into modules and programs?
  3. Should Graduate Attributes supplant faculty specific attributes or co-exist?
  4. How will progress and success in developing Graduate Attributes be recognized, monitored and evaluated?

Questions 1-3 are the remit of the staff within the University. Fortunately, as far as question 4 goes, there is support on hand to help.

Potential.ly is a learning software thatconnects education with personal development and employability; ensuring student’s education experience prepares them academically, personally and professionally. We combine personality science with personal development methodologies to empower graduates to be actively engaged with lifelong learning and continuous development.

Beginning your personal development journey with Potential.ly takes three steps:

1)     Register for Potential.ly at https://potential.ly/signup

2)     Complete the Potential.ly Indicator

3)     Review your personalized profile

Potential.ly was recently commissioned by two high profile Universities in the UK to bring their graduate attributes to life. Graduate Attributes are not just something to be read on a website – they are fundamental to the University vision, culture and behavior. For Graduate Attributes to be truly successful, they need to be embraced by two sets of stakeholders: students and staff. Appeasing two different groups with two very different wants and needs is no easy feat. From the outset, we set ourselves two imperatives:

1)     Provide students with an engaging and stimulating way to connects with different aspects of the student experience and empower them to be active participants in their personal development

2)     Support staff with creating a personalized student experience at key touchpoints across the University, as well as the resources to enhance the learning journey

There are also some University ‘pain points’ to be aware of:

a)    Students and staff are time poor – our role is to make their lives easier, not harder

b)    Technologies and processes are numerous, disconnected and complex – integrate and keep things simple

c)    Community minded, individual conscious different people will engage and express themselves in different ways and this has to be respected.

d)    Graduate Attributes transcend specific functions – but must be applicable and actionable to all of them. If people don’t see the benefit, they won’t be engaged.

To assist students and institutions with tracking and evaluating their development, Potential.ly was customised to incorporate the Graduate Attributes framework. Upon completing Indicator, students are taken to an intuitive dashboard that introduces them to the concept of the graduate attribute framework and its purpose. Next, they are introduced to the graduate attributes and able to deep dive and understand what characterises each competency and how it benefits them. Finally, students are directed to activities and resources that will help them develop that specific attribute. University staff have full control over the resources made available to students – being able to connect them with MOOCS, events, videos and a range of online content targeted at users with specific development areas or the entire student population. ‘Resource prompts’ alert students whenever a relevant new resource has been made available and students are able to record the completion of specific activities on Potential.ly, which will reflect their progress through dashboard vitals.

Rollout across these institutions isn’t scheduled until September 2016 and the challenge is far from cracked. The key themes for us are flexibility and agility. To adapt, we must be flexible and agile. We are developing a resource designed to engage and enable, not prescribe and mandate. Students, staff and institutions have to see themselves reflected in the graduate attributes they aspire towards and the technology that brings it to them; which means continuous collaboration, co-creation and innovation. After all, how can we innovate ourselves if our tools and opportunities stay the same?

About the author

Clayton Black

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