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Studies in Higher Education
ISSN: 0307-5079 (Print) 1470-174X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cshe20
Enhancing graduate employability: best intentions
and mixed outcomes
To cite this article: Sue Cranmer (2006) Enhancing graduate employability: best
intentions and mixed outcomes, Studies in Higher Education, 31:2, 169-184, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070600572041
Published online: 24 Jan 2007.
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Studies in Higher Education
Vol. 31, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 169–184
ISSN 0307-5079 (print)/ISSN 1470-174X (online)/06/020169–16
© 2006 Society for Research into Higher Education
Enhancing graduate employability: best
intentions and mixed outcomes
Institute of Education University of London, UK
Taylor and Francis LtdCSHE_A_157187.sgm10.1080/03075070600572041Studies in Higher Education0307-5079 (print)/1470-174X (online)Original Article2006Society for Research into Higher Education312000000April 2006SueCranmerResearch Officer, Knowledge Lab23-29 Emerald StreetLondonWC1N 3QFUK(0)20 7763 email@example.com
This article reports on a study for the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the impact
of employability skills teaching and learning on graduate labour market prospects. The findings of
the study cast doubt on the assumption that these skills can be effectively developed within class-
rooms. Detailed information gathered at university department level is drawn on to assess how
academics perceive and engage in the teaching and learning of employability skills. It is argued that,
despite the best intentions of academics to enhance graduates’ employability, the limitations
inherent within the agenda will consistently produce mixed outcomes. Furthermore, it is argued
that resources would be better utilised to increase employment-based training and experience, and/
or employer involvement in courses, which were found to positively affect immediate graduate
prospects in the labour market and, therefore, support graduates in the transitional stage into
Employability issues are at the very core of contemporary higher education in the UK.
The changing notions of the extent to which the curriculum should seek to enhance
employability reflect different conceptions of higher education in government policy,
and by employers, academics, students and, increasingly, their parents. Whilst earlier
debates tended to focus on liberal concerns that higher education should seek to
enable the individual to better fulfil their role in society, recent discussions have
focused more on the notion that all academic courses should include employability
enhancing content, not just those with a vocational focus such as medicine and law.
In the UK, government-funded initiatives and programmes have emerged from the
late 1980s onwards, designed to support the development of employability skills: for
example, Higher Education for Capability (1988) and Enterprise in Higher
Education (1989). To some degree, the Dearing Report (National Committee of
*School of Lifelong Education and International Development, Institute of Education, University
of London, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
170 S. Cranmer
Inquiry into Higher Education [NCIHE], 1997) brought the debate to a close, in
policy terms at least, by concluding that the development of key skills should become
a central aim of higher education. The report recommended the development of
communication, numeracy, information technology and learning how to learn at a higher
level within all subjects. Further government-funded initiatives were made available
to support universities in fulfilling this remit.
Whilst the UK is not alone in its commitment to more closely aligning higher
education with work, it has been argued that historically the UK has a particularly
loose match when compared with other European countries (Little, 2001). Neverthe-
less, industrialised societies throughout the world are introducing policies that seek to
enhance employability through educational initiatives with a view to boosting
national wealth (Little, 2003). As Little notes, though the term ‘employability’ is not
in wide circulation outside the UK, many societies have embraced notions of gradu-
ates’ ‘work-readiness’ as a means of ensuring economic competitiveness in a global
context. Moreover, De la Harpe et al. (2000) suggest that concern from employers
that undergraduate programmes are failing to provide graduates with the necessary
skills for their careers is a worldwide issue. Harvey and Bowers-Brown (2004) have
pointed out that, with increased mobility across national borders, there is a growing
need for a model of generic skills that is recognised internationally. Research has
shown that some countries have integrated the employability agenda into higher
education more than others. As Harvey and Bowers-Brown point out, what is
expected of a graduate is similar throughout the world, but with different methods
being deployed to ensure that this is achieved. In some countries higher education
institutions view a first degree as sufficient evidence of graduate employability, whilst
others have integrated measures such as work-based learning and ‘graduate
attributes’ into the curriculum (Harvey & Bowers-Brown, 2004).
In Australia, for instance, graduates complete a ‘generally accepted’ set of
attributes. In New Zealand, various measures have been developed, such as the
National Qualifications Framework (NQF), in consultation with education and
industry specialists. In Canada and the USA, several universities have introduced
‘critical skills’ deemed necessary for the Canadian workforce into their careers
programmes; whilst both Canada and the USA assess students through work-based/
related learning criteria. In Denmark, the Qualifications Framework requires the
completion of a ‘competence’ profile. In Finland, skills courses are available and
integrated into the curriculum and students’ personal study plans. In South Africa,
the NQF includes two sets of outcomes—’critical and specific’—which contribute to
the graduate’s personal development and the social and economic development of the
society (Harvey & Bowers-Brown, 2004). These examples show that, whilst countries
may constitute ‘employability’ differently, there are commonalities in approaches.
General approaches to skills development in the UK have been seen as either to
‘embed’ skills within degree courses or to offer students ‘parallel’ or ‘stand-alone’
courses. These approaches are best viewed as representing two ends of a spectrum.
At one end, total embedding can refer to a style of delivery whereby students may not
be aware that they are developing employability skills. At the other, skill modules
Enhancing graduate employability 171
‘bolted-on’ to the curriculum can result in the learning of skills being isolated from
mainstream academic concerns, with students’ motivation to study them marginalised.
This model has previously been summarised to include a third point on the spectrum,
midway between ‘embedded’ and ‘bolted-on’ approaches, and outlining the corre-
sponding advantages and disadvantages of each of the three methods (see Table 1).
Universities’ ongoing commitment to this agenda has led to the evolution of an
increasingly wide range of strategies aimed at enhancing graduates’ employability
skills and, in many cases, making them more explicit: introducing new courses,
modifying existing courses and expanding opportunities for work experience. This
expansion has rendered previous debates around comparisons of ‘embedded’ or
‘stand-alone’ provision inadequate. In addition to the categories of total embedding;
explicit embedding and integration; and parallel development, a new and extended set of
terms is needed to more satisfactorily articulate current practice and acknowledge the
more integrated role played by careers and employability skills units. Table 2 has been
compiled by the author from data collected in a study for the Higher Education
Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (see Mason et al., 2003).
The new categories in Table 2 more effectively describe the expanded
developments in methods of employability skills teaching. Moreover, they indicate
how ‘bolt-on’ study and generic skills have become the responsibility of lecturing staff,
incorporated within the mainstream curriculum within specifically focused modules.
In 2000, the HEFCE reopened the debate into employability skills teaching and
learning by commissioning new research on their impact on graduate labour market
prospects. The results of this new investigation were, to some degree, unsettling.
They showed that structured work experience and employer involvement in degree
course design and delivery has positive effects on the outcomes for graduates, in their
ability to find graduate-level jobs within six months of graduation. However, there
was no evidence that the efforts devoted by university departments to the teaching,
learning and assessment of employability skills had a significant independent effect on
graduate labour market outcomes (Mason et al., 2003). These outcome measures are
subject to some criticism (see below), but the analysis nonetheless raises some doubts
about the effectiveness of the classroom-based models.
In the light of this finding, this article will draw on detailed information gathered
at university departmental level for the HEFCE investigation, to assess how
departments engage in the teaching and learning of employability skills. It will argue
Table 1. Methods of delivering employability skills in the higher education curriculum (DfEE,
Explicit embedding and
integration Parallel development
Lose skills without trace
Skills disappear in context
No explicit assessment
Low impact on curriculum
Skills in context
High impact on curriculum
Low impact on curriculum
172 S. Cranmer
that despite the best intentions of academics to enhance graduates’ employability, the
tensions inherent in the agenda will consistently produce mixed outcomes. Further-
more, whilst policy makers continue to emphasise employability initiatives as a means
of promoting employment prospects, and higher education institutions continue to
engage with them, research casts doubt on the assumption that these skills can be
effectively developed within classrooms.
Tensions within the employability agenda
There are difficulties inherent within the employability in higher education agenda at
every turn: from defining, to measuring, to developing, to transferring. The elusive
quality of employability makes it a woolly concept to pin down. Many have tried:
definitions of employability in the UK range from a limited set of threshold skills to a
Table 2. Expanded model of methods of delivering employability skills in the higher education
Delivered by subject lecturers (mandatory)
Delivered by Careers and
Employability Unit personnel
Low impact on
Enhancing graduate employability 173
wide range of ‘knowledge, skills and attributes that graduates are expected to be able
to demonstrate they have acquired in higher education (Hillage & Pollard, 1998;
Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals [CVCP]/Department for Education
and Employment [DfEE], 1998). Atkins (1999) has argued that further confusion
arises from the terms themselves: between ‘enterprise’, ‘core’, ‘key’, and ‘common’,
‘transferable’ and ‘generic’. Knight regards employability as a chameleon concept
(2001). Woollard (1995) has looked to employers for guidance but found that no
precise definition exists there either, which is not surprising given the range of
possibilities that exists.
Measuring employability outcomes is even more difficult than defining them, and
methods to do so have met with reservation. Harvey et al. (2002), for example, criti-
cises current methods for measuring employability outcomes based on the proportion
of graduates who achieve a full-time job within the first six months after graduation:
firstly, for measuring graduate success only in the short term, and, secondly, for
assessing employability as an institutional achievement rather than that of the
individual. Other authors, including Knight (2001), have argued that the relationship
between employability and employment is, in any case, heavily mediated by unequal
access to employment opportunities and labour market preferences. Morley (2001)
supports this view: she argues that employability has become a performance indicator
within higher education, which overlooks ‘how social structures such as gender, race,
social class and disability interact with labour market opportunities’ (p. 132).
Similarly, Brown and Scase’s (1994) empirical study shows how employer percep-
tions about the ‘quality’ of graduates from certain universities and departments
continue to influence transitions into employment. Moreover, employers who report
higher levels of satisfaction with the performance of their graduates are more likely to
recruit from higher education institutions requiring higher A-level entry scores,
perpetuating the notion of a so-called graduate elite, who it is assumed possess broader
forms of social and cultural capital than non-conventional entrants do (Brown &
Scase, 1994; Hesketh, 2000). Again, these brief examples highlight the range of ways
that exist to measure employability and the tensions inherent in doing so.
Further issues exist in the methods deployed to enhance graduates’ employability
skills. Research in relation to the approaches of ‘bolt-on’ or ‘embedded’ skills courses
(see Table 1) has shown that the embedding approach is more effective in developing
employability skills. Students interviewed before graduation have shown an ability to
identify the learning activities which have helped them to develop employability skills
(Arnold et al., 1999; Kemp & Seagraves, 1995); an awareness of the range of employ-
ability skills that departments have sought to develop through the curriculum
(Drummond, 1999); and an ability to cite evidence of the employability skills they
have developed (Fallows & Steven, 2000). Whilst these findings are useful, they also
raise questions about the point at which it is most effective to measure outcomes,
whether before or after graduation, with the effects of employment-related activities
possibly diminishing over time as the graduate engages in work-based training and
gains experience. Also, further research is needed as to the benefits/disadvantages of
the expanded methods of employability skills development highlighted in Table 2.
174 S. Cranmer
Once more, developing employability skills in higher education emerges as a complex
area lacking definitive answers.
The final area of concern raised here is in relation to the transfer of skills. From a
psychological perspective, Perkins and Salomon (1994) have provided evidence that
the anticipated transfer of learning experiences to new settings occurs to varying
degrees. For example, ‘near transfer’ may occur when a student encounters similar
issues in an examination paper that have been dealt with in class, but this process is
much less likely to take place in situations of ‘far transfer’ between contexts that seem
different or remote (Bennett et al., 2000). Moreover, limitations of transfer may
equally apply to the benefits of work experience. Learning contracts and outcome
records have sought to review students’ skills in order to enhance evidence of work-
related learning and the fostering of employability skills (Foster & Stephenson, 1998).
However, Guile and Griffiths (2001) argue from a social psychological perspective
that, by overlooking the extent to which knowledge and skill use are embedded within
the context in which they are developed, many work experience programmes fail to
recognise that it is not work experience in itself that results in the development of
employability skills, but the meaningful engagement in the discourse and activities
associated with specific ‘communities of practice’.
This suggests that for work experience to be productive, it needs to be in a setting
closely related to that of subsequent employment, a conclusion borne out by the
Graduate Apprenticeship Programme (Fallows & Weller, 2000). Studies also suggest
that transfer may be more feasible within some subjects than others. For instance, an
engineering student’s experience of problem-solving on an engineering course or
work placement may be more relevant to their graduate employment than would be
the case for a history graduate, whose employment may not draw on similar problems
to those addressed within the course. Additionally, it is worth noting that only 18%
of graduates take part in structured work experience as part of their degree course in
any case (Centre for Higher Education Research and Information and the Centre for
Research into Quality, 2002).
The complexities inherent in the employability agenda consistently undermine
attempts to understand how best to develop employability skills in universities. These
brief examples of the difficulties in defining, measuring, developing and transferring
employability skills have been provided to show the wide range of possibilities that
exist and why they have often been less than successful. In the next section, I draw on
university case study visits carried out by Mason et al. (2003) to explore how univer-
sities seek to enhance graduates’ employability skills through approaches to teaching
Recognising the tensions in the employability agenda, the investigation had four main
components. The first consisted of visits to 34 departments in eight different
universities, in order to get closer to the day-to-day realities of what is going on inside
universities in terms of explicit efforts to enhance the employability of graduates. The
Enhancing graduate employability 175
second component was an analysis of First Destination survey data for all graduates
in the year 2000 from the sample departments. The third was a telephone survey of
recent graduates in the subjects being investigated, and the fourth was a parallel
survey of their immediate line managers. The methodology was designed to get a ‘fix’
on the relationship between recent graduate recruits’ work performance and their
learning experiences in higher education. The main focus of the study was on students
who take a degree straight from school, rather than mature students or students
already working in established positions and who take a degree as part of their job.
One triangulation point of the investigation was the universities’ own perceptions
of the opportunities for employment-related learning that they offer their students,
and it is this data that will be drawn on here. The importance of these self-reports is
in their efficacy for assessing the level of engagement with and value of employability
skills to academics.
Semi-structured interviews were held with 60 academic staff and 10 careers/employ-
ability unit staff in five subjects. Eight universities (four pre-1992 and four post-1992)
were chosen, including at least two that are seen primarily as internationally distin-
guished research-intensive universities, and at least two whose stated mission was
primarily to serve their local communities and broaden access. Others were selected
to span the range between these two extremes, along with representation of different
regions of England. Heads of Schools were approached for a representative to artic-
ulate policy on employability skills teaching and learning within each department.
The study was necessarily selective. Students study a wide range of subjects and
graduates enter a wide range of occupations. Four subject areas were chosen in each
university to cover long-standing vocational areas, 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. The discipline titles varied
between institutions but were brought together for the study under the broad head-
ings of biological sciences, business studies, computer science, design studies and
history. Design studies were offered in post-1992 universities and history in pre-1992
universities, with the other subjects existing in both.
Three case study examples have been chosen for this article to represent in more
detail the main issues apparent in how employability is perceived by academics and
taught throughout the whole framework. These have been selected on the same prin-
ciples as the original sample: UniA is a pre-1992, internationally distinguished,
research-intensive university; UniB is a post-1992 university whose stated mission is
to serve the local community and broaden access. UniC occupies a point midway
between UniA and UniB. It is a pre-1992 university, but with a long tradition of
providing work experience to undergraduate students, retained since its upgrade from
176 S. Cranmer
College of Advanced Technology to University 40 years ago. Three subjects—
biological sciences, computing and business studies—were represented in all three
universities. History was represented in UniA and UniC and design only in UniB.
Measures of perception of employability
A key aim of the university interviews was to understand how academics perceive
employability, and for this reason we asked each respondent to provide a definition.
As mentioned, the value of these self-reports is in their usefulness for assessing the
level of engagement with and value of employability skills to academics themselves.
Measure of the balance between employability skills and conventional academic skills
A further aim was to understand the emphasis placed on employment-related skills in
teaching and learning. For this purpose, respondents were asked to indicate the
degree of importance given in their teaching to a number of items on a scale of 1 to
4. These ranged from academic objectives, such as teaching specialist subject knowl-
edge and theoretical understanding, to the development of more explicit employabil-
ity-enhancing skills (see Table 3). The skills were chosen to reflect those typically
seen as enhancing graduate employability in higher education, including both those
emphasised in the Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997), plus problem-solving and team-
working skills. In addition, understanding of the world of work was added, to refer to the
knowledge about how organisations work, their objectives and how people in those
organisations do their jobs (Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, 1998).
Measure of the diversity of methods for teaching employability skills
A third aim of the university visits was to find out the balance between employability
skills embedded in courses and bolt-on or stand-alone courses. However, as
Table 3. Relative importance of employability skills compared with subject knowledge/theoretical
University UniA UniB UniC
Biology 4 2 4
Business Studies 1 3 4
Computing 1 1 3
History 1 1
Table 3 shows the relative importance given to employability skills (deﬁned as communication, numeracy, literacy,
communications and information technology, problem-solving, understanding world of work and team-working)
compared with conventional academic objectives (deﬁned as teaching specialist subject knowledge and theoretical
understanding). Respondents were asked to indicate the degree of importance given in their teaching to these
items on a scale of 1 to 4: 4 = Very high emphasis placed on employability skills in teaching; 3=Fairly high
emphasis, 2 = Fairly low emphasis, 1 = Very low emphasis.
Enhancing graduate employability 177
mentioned above, the data highlighted the need for a new and extended set of terms
to more adequately describe current provision (see Table 2). Table 4 shows a
summary of responses drawn from data collected from university subject departments
and careers/employability skills units, showing provision of opportunities for students
to develop employability skills incorporating the new terms. This has been compiled
by the author from data collected in the study (see Mason et al., 2003).
The three cases are presented in this section. Each provides a brief description of the
university background in relation to size and reputation, entry requirements and
engagement in employability initiatives; a summary of respondents’ perceptions of
employability; a quantitative summary of the relative importance of employability
Table IV. Summar y of the diversity of methods for teaching employability skills within subject
departments in case study higher education institutions
University UniA UniB UniC
Biology Total embedding. Explicit embedding
and integration with
generic skills provided
by subject staff.
skills provided by
Business Studies Total embedding. Explicit embedding
and integration with
generic skills provided
by subject staff.
skills provided by
Computing Explicit embedding
skills provided by
and integration with
generic skills provided
by subject staff.
skills provided by
Design Explicit embedding
and integration with
generic skills provided
by subject staff.
History Total embedding. Explicit embedding
This analysis is drawn from data collected from university subject departments and careers/employability skills
units showing models of providing students with opportunities to develop their employability skills.
178 S. Cranmer
skills compared with subject knowledge/theoretical understanding; and a summary of
the diversity of methods for teaching employability within subject departments.
Background. This pre-1992 university is well established and extremely popular,
able to command very high entry requirements from recruits across its entire range of
undergraduate courses. We were told, for instance, that in biological sciences there
are seven applicants for every place, whilst business studies courses have the highest
number of applicants in the UK. This university was involved in the Enterprise in
Higher Education scheme (1989), which offered universities and polytechnics addi-
tional resources for developments that laid more emphasis than previously on the
needs of a rapidly changing economy. It has continued to support the employability
skills agenda through a series of further initiatives, including the establishment of a
dedicated centre to support and advise students and staff in the areas of skills and
Perceptions, balance and diversity of methods. Academic staff in biological sciences
defined employability broadly, which they said was due to the wide range of
occupations that biology graduates enter:
I’d say it was the suitability of a person for being employed. (Academic, Biology
Academics in the business studies department couched employability in terms of
employers being attracted to their graduates because of the degree they had
completed. The computer science respondents said that employers take their
graduates’ technical skills for granted but additionally sought adaptability and other
‘transferable skills’. History respondents rejected the notion that they should have
responsibility for teaching employability skills outright, and argued that it was not the
task of the universities to provide ‘training’:
I’ve got to say it concerns me because it’s blurring the distinction between education and
training … good employers should be concerned with their own training. (Academic,
History Department, UniA)
Rather than teaching specific employability enhancing content, this history lecturer
argued that the skills of becoming a historian, developed through the conventional
processes of reading books, essay writing, note taking and solving historical problems,
would ensure graduates’ employment opportunities. He emphasised that he
frequently kept in touch with previous students, and was impressed by the high level
and wide range of job destinations they enter. He was convinced that completing a
history degree in this university, combined with a good reference, ensured good
Tables 3 and 4 indicate that academics at UniA are, for the most part, committed
to employability through the subject knowledge of the degree rather than through
Enhancing graduate employability 179
the enhancing of employability skills. The exceptions were found in the biology
department, where academics place ‘very high emphasis’ on employability skills
within their teaching, yet whose approach is to continue to totally embed these
within the subject discipline, with the associated pitfalls. These could include, for
instance, having low impact on the curriculum and not being made explicit to
students. In contrast to the other departments at UniA, the computer science
respondents have developed a model of employability skills teaching of ‘explicit
embedding and integration with mandatory bolt-on professional skills provided by
subject staff’. Whilst keen to emphasise their commitment to conventional academic
objectives in teaching (see Table 3), students were also provided with details of how
employability skills were mapped through the curriculum. Academics said that their
approach reflected their commitment to producing graduates who are not only
equipped with technical skills but also the employability skills that they have found
Inferences. Overall in the investigation, academics at UniA gave lower emphasis to
employability skills teaching than academics at most of the other universities visited.
However, it should be emphasised that this was not the case in all pre-1992 university
departments, with differences often emerging between subjects rather than as a reflec-
tion of the university’s character. What emerged most strongly from all respondents
at UniA, however, was the confidence that the academic quality of graduates, in
conjunction with the degree studied, would ensure good employment prospects. This
is the likely outcome of UniA’s high level of entry qualifications combined with its
own reputation. As one computer science respondent put it, coming to UniA is seen
by employers as a ‘seal of approval’.
Background. This university was formerly a large and successful polytechnic, inau-
gurated as a university in 1992. In biological sciences and business studies, entry
requirements are more modest than at UniA. However, places for computer science
are in high demand, with five applications for every place leading to a high average
A-level score or equivalent being required. Design studies entry is by portfolio with
2.5 applicants per place. The university was involved in the Enterprise in Higher
Education scheme, and has continued to focus on employability through a range of
initiatives it has developed, such as the Entrepreneurs Club.
Perceptions, balance and diversity of methods. The definitions offered at UniB suggest
greater focus on employability, as couched in employment-related skills terms, than
was the case at UniA. This is perhaps unsurprising for an institution that has been
more vocationally directed. Respondents in biological sciences went beyond the basic
definition of employability given by their counterparts at UniA, by suggesting that the
job should be one that the graduate chooses and one which uses their skills, rather
180 S. Cranmer
than just any job that may come their way. The business school academics described
employability in terms of sandwich placements offered to students, in conjunction
with ‘key skills’ embedded in the curriculum. Respondents from computer science
argued that employability is having the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding
to offer to employers. The design studies respondents said that the aim of their course
was for graduates to secure employment through a range of strategies:
Employability to me is that the student has the skills and confidence to feel that they can
manage their own career, that they know about how to go about networking and about
making the right contacts that will secure them employment of one sort or another,
because design is very much a skill, it’s both an academic and a skills based vocational
subject. (Academic, Design Department, UniB)
In line with their counterparts at UniA, Table 3 responses suggest that academics at
UniB are similarly committed to enhancing their graduates’ employability through
subject knowledge, rather than through the development of employment-related
skills. This is particularly interesting in view of the emphasis given to employability in
their definitions, and their adoption of methods of ‘explicit embedding and integra-
tion with mandatory bolt-on professional and generic skills provided by subject staff’
across all subjects in the sample shown in Table 4. These methods were borne out
through the provision of information highlighting the employability skills being
developed through the curriculum. As at UniA, marked differences emerge between
some subjects in Table 3 which suggest that, for instance, academics in the business
studies department place higher emphasis on employment-related content than their
colleagues in computer studies.
Inferences. As a post-1992 university with a vocational focus, it was anticipated that
there would be a greater focus on employment-related skills development at UniB
than at UniA. This was borne out to an extent in the definitions provided and the
adoption of the extensive composite model for teaching employability skills
developed at the University. In particular, the integration of generic skills courses
developed by careers personnel into the mainstream curriculum shows the
commitment of the University to the employability skills agenda at institutional level.
Yet, the higher level of emphasis given by three of the four departments to teaching
subject knowledge (see Table 3) suggests that, whilst academics are committed to the
development of employment-related skills for the most part, they maintain a greater
focus on subject knowledge. Academics in computer studies appear to have the lowest
levels of commitment to the employability skills agenda at UniB, though this could
reflect the extremely high level of labour market demand for information technology
graduates at the time of the interviews.
Background. This pre-1992 university has been selected for the case studies as a
university occupying an intermediate position between the conventional academic
Enhancing graduate employability 181
concerns of UniA and the more vocational focus of UniB, due to its own practice
of providing work experience as a former College of Advanced Technology. Entry
requirements for biological sciences, business studies, computer science and
history are medium to high, so that, in general, UniC occupies a position midway
between UniA and UniB in terms of entry requirements. Whilst the University was
not involved in the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative, other funding has
been drawn on for the development of employability initiatives within
Perceptions, balance and diversity of methods. As with UniB, academic staff at UniC
emphasised employability skills across all subjects in the sample. Respondents in
biological sciences defined employability as the ability to get a job again and again.
One academic said that this was particularly important as the average person
changes jobs nine times in a lifetime. Being ‘employable’ is defined as possible
through possession of both technical and employability skills. The business studies
interviewees said that employability is ‘being able to get a job that is satisfactory in
whatever sense you define satisfactory’. Computer science respondents emphasised
the broader nature of the educational experience they offered, in preparing
graduates for life:
We don’t see everything we do as a kind of factory preparing people for work. If it’s useful
then great but if it’s not, then education is about more than that. However, the skills and
attributes, thinking or whatever, that hopefully we try to engender in higher education is
useful in the workplace as much as it is in, if you want to, you know, trek around Africa
for the rest of your life. (Academic, computer science, UniC)
In contrast to the history respondents at UniA, those at UniC claimed a long-standing
commitment to providing ‘transferable skills’ relevant to the workplace and, more
recently, to making these more explicit to students.
In general, the definitions of employability provided by academics at UniC suggest
more emphasis across all the subjects in the sample than those imparted at UniA, and
a similar level of commitment to academics at UniB. Table 3 suggests a much higher
emphasis on teaching employability skills than at either of the other two universities.
The exceptions here are the history academics, who put rather more onus on conven-
tional academic objectives in their teaching and learning, when compared with their
colleagues in biology, business studies and computing. This was borne out by
responses in Table 4, where more extensive methods of developing employability
skills were also found in the other three departments. All four departments provided
students with information highlighting the areas of employability skills development
throughout the curriculum.
Inferences. The high emphasis given to the employability skills agenda within most of
the sample departments at UniC can be ascribed to the university’s vocational orien-
tation and commitment to providing work experience. This re-emphasises the point
made earlier, that assumptions that pre-1992 universities have been slower to take up
182 S. Cranmer
employability initiatives should be challenged, as the picture that emerges is more
complex and one which is influenced by both the university’s own particular history
and subject differences. In particular, the finding that history teaching once again
incorporates less employability skills than other subjects suggests that, in common
with history academics at UniA, academics at UniC believe that the skills intrinsic to
being a historian ensure good job prospects, rather than their engagement with
explicit employability initiatives.
This article should be considered within the UK context where, generally, graduates
do rather well within the labour market. In addition to standing a stronger chance of
finding a job, they enjoy significantly higher earnings than those with only secondary
education (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2004). Yet, it
is a cause for concern that whilst substantial resources are being committed to the
development of employability skills in classrooms, there was no confirmation in the
study that these efforts had a significant independent effect on graduate labour market
outcomes (see Mason et al., 2003). Furthermore, data from the study showed that this
finding could well ‘reflect a degree of “mismatch” for some graduates between the
skills acquired at university and the skills they are required to use in employment’
(p. 107). This could be indicative of the limitations of seeking to develop employabil-
ity skills outside the workplace in any case. For instance, where line managers who
were interviewed said that graduates had ‘only some or none of’ the skills and knowl-
edge required when they started their jobs, they were asked a further open question
about what types of skills were lacking. A large proportion of the initial skills deficien-
cies identified by line managers related to areas of knowledge and skills which were
as likely to be technical and/or employer-specific in nature as they were to be employ-
ability skills. The report concluded that these deficiencies ‘related to areas of skill and
knowledge which are best acquired (or can only be acquired) after starting employ-
ment rather than beforehand, for example, product knowledge and the knowledge
and skills needed for working in this particular organisation’ (p. 14).
In contrast, the study did find that structured work experience and employer
involvement in degree course design and delivery was found to have positive effects
on graduates’ outcomes, in their ability to find graduate-level jobs within six months
of graduation. However, these influences would most likely ‘diminish rapidly’ over
time as graduates acquire more job and occupationally specific skills and knowledge
through work-based training and experience. This result is confirmed by evidence
from recent comparative studies across Europe, that suggest there are no significant
differences between skills possessed by graduates and skills required in graduate jobs
some three or four years after graduation (Little, 2003). As Little reflects: ‘This could
be interpreted as suggesting the “problem” may be more one of transitions into the
labour market rather than of longer-term enduring mismatches between labour
market supply and demand’ (p. 22). In the light of these findings, it would surely
make sense for universities to redirect some of their resources from classroom-based
Enhancing graduate employability 183
initiatives seeking to develop employability skills to increasing employment-based
training and experience, and/or employer involvement in courses, which were found
to positively affect immediate graduate prospects in the labour market and, therefore,
support graduates in the transitional stage into employment.
This article draws on a study of employability skills teaching in English universities
supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and
carried out in association with Geoff Mason, the National Institute for Economic and
Social Research; Gareth Williams and David Guile, Institute of Education,
University of London.
I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the guidance for this article given by
David Guile, Geoff Mason and Gareth Williams. I would also like to thank Kelly
Coate, Natasha Kersh, Louise Morley and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful
comments on earlier drafts. None of these individuals bears responsibility for any of
the views expressed here.
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