Alex Locke is completing an MSc Social Research at Leeds University. This innovative course gives every student the opportunity to complete a project in partnership with an external organisation. Alex has been working in partnership with Edge to look at employability in higher education, one of the key themes that emerged from Our Plan for Higher Education.
Student perspectives of employability within higher education are surprisingly unstudied. In fact, the few studies available often highlight the lack of inquiry into students’ view. This is unfortunate since students are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of the push behind improving employability skills. With this in mind, I interviewed ten engineering students at the University of Leeds to find out their views. Some clear themes emerged from these interviews. The students talked about needing something beyond their degree, often talking of extra experience or an ‘edge’, that would make them stand out from their peers. It was clear they perceived the graduate job market as being competitive enough to warrant this. Interestingly, despite identifying a need for an ‘edge’, they were largely positive that their degree would meet employer expectations and help them secure and succeed in future employment.
They did still express a desire for the university to prioritise improving employability as part of their degree though. The parts of their degree they mainly valued most were those which they could relate to ‘real work’ and showed how their skills apply to the engineering industry, such as teamwork-based projects. A pattern became clear in which the activities and experiences that students considered closer to ‘real work’ were more important than others, whether they were part of their degree or not. A rough hierarchy emerged with work placements by far at the top, followed by non-industry work experience, then societies and volunteering.
Seven of the students interviewed had completed a year-in-industry placement and were overwhelmingly positive about them. From teaching them work skills, to showing how their academic knowledge transferred to ‘real’ work, or just the opportunity to earn money, it was a struggle to get them to say anything negative. Six of the seven students who had undertaken work placements were offered graduate roles as a result, which offers one clear reason why they valued their placements so highly, and ranked them far above other means of improving their employment chances.
Comparatively, students were mostly positive about non-industry work experience, citing the transferable skills they had learned as useful, but some students were sceptical about how helpful they would be for getting a graduate job. When it came to societies and volunteering, the responses were mixed, with some being positive towards them, but others seeing them as unimportant as they were voluntary activities done in their spare time.
Finally, there is a system at the university called Leeds for Life that students can use to diarise their university progress, set up meetings with personal tutors, and see which modules they’ve taken have improved certain soft skills. Most students said this system could improve job prospects, but most also said they had not personally found it useful. Again, this being the activity furthest from ‘real work’ may be why they do not rank it so highly.
Overall, these responses to different ways of improving employability can be understood through four key points: students think their degree is not enough, demonstrated by their need for ‘extra’ experience; the degree itself is not the problem, as they were satisfied it would set them up well for future employment; students want the university to give more support to improve their prospects, as they believe universities should be helping to improve their employability; and finally, students seek out the most ‘work-like’ ways of improving their job prospects, primarily work placements.