Threading employability into the tapestry of higher education

By Johnny Rich –

Higher education is good at producing employable students. Even as the number of graduates has grown, the demand among employers to attract them has remained high and the extra earnings that a graduate can expect, compared to their peers who started work straight after school, seem to have increased1.

The problem is that it’s all a bit of a mystery. There is this vague quality ‘graduateness’ that recruiters say they look for. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that universities aren’t actually adding that quality, just admitting the students who’ve already got it. Certainly, few universities consciously set out to define or develop it, or even encourage students to see their education as a self-conscious process of gathering the attributes of graduateness, whatever those may be.

From the outset, may I say that I do not blame academics for their lack of worldly wisdom about employability. Personally, I agree with the idea that their cerebral adventures are usually aided by being free of such concerns. But the fact remains that most teachers in higher education regard the world of business, of commerce, of nine-to-five jobs, with something between disinterest and disgust.

This is not what they got into academia for. Indeed, some even embarked on postgraduate studies and academic careers partly to put off the day of confrontation with the world beyond education, the only home they have ever known.

There are many exceptions, of course – just enough to prove the rule.

Is it any wonder then that, despite the fact that by virtue of their higher education, graduates are somehow steeped in something that employers want – let us call it ‘employability’ – most academics know little and care even less about what employability is, or how to optimise the steeping process.

Meanwhile, students are ever more concerned with it. To cite but one of the countless studies in recent years evidencing the same trend, the University Lifestyle Survey 2014 reported that the primary reason to go to university for 76% of students is to improve their job prospects, a proportion that has increased every year the survey has been conducted2. Even the second placed reason is roughly a head-to-head between ‘improving knowledge’ and ‘improving salary prospects’.

Employers, too, want universities to be ever more effective at getting graduates “oven-ready” in recruiters’ parlance. According to a YouGov poll, more than half of employers felt that few or no graduate recruits were prepared for the workplace when they started3.

This bears out a conversation I had recently with a leading investment bank during which their head of recruitment boasted – for it was said with pride – that they had managed to reduce the time it takes for a graduate to make a commercial contribution to their business from a year to nine months. I was left wondering too things: what proportion switch jobs during that period? And surely they should be able to add value from day one?

It’s not that universities wouldn’t like to do better. The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey of graduate destinations six months after leaving university, feeds into the league tables which are then afforded an undeserved reverence. But universities don’t know how. That academic attitude towards employability pervades and careers support is rarely linked to teaching.

Instead, careers support is seen as an add-on, albeit an important one – usually confined to self-selecting final year students – and it’s mostly about trying to pair off employers with candidates. It’s a mating game in which most universities believe their role is no more than to book the dinner table and let the couples get on with it. There is precious little effort to help the candidates seem more attractive, let alone actually be more attractive (or to have a deeper and wider appreciation of the full array of different qualities in a prospective partner).

If you want a measure of the lack of serious regard for careers and employability in UK universities, just look at how few reserve a place for the head of careers (or someone with similar responsibilities) in their academic or institutional governance bodies, or in their senior management team. It is not even a handful.

Instead, universities focus their enhancement on ‘student satisfaction’ as measured in their final year. It’s as if students were supposed to know their job market value before they’ve had a chance to test it. Here in England, certain universities focus on recruiting ‘better’ students and stamping them with ‘Russell Group-approved’, which all-too-many recruiters then use as a proxy for employability.

I would like to propose a solution: a simple framework that, if it started to get foothold among universities, students and employers, would smooth the transition through school, further study, first job and into a career. It would encourage students to do that most powerful thing in the context of employability: be self-reflective. And it would make the process of suitable candidates and employers finding each other so much simpler.

In careers research, it is common to talk of two types of skills. ‘Hard’ cognitive skills (or ‘competencies’) are those skills – like memorising the London street map – that are specific to particular tasks or jobs. Whereas ‘soft’ skills, such as communication and grit, are transferable. Different models describe the number of soft skills as anything from 5 to around 20. The exact model is not important here, but for the sake of argument, let us take the seven used by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)4 as follows: self-management; team-working; business and customer awareness; problem-solving; communication; application of numeracy; and application of information technology.

I contend that these soft skills are exactly what we mean by graduateness. Far from being something the students have developed fully when they embark on higher education, they build on their soft skills through teaching, independent learning and living, critical thinking and extra-curricular activities.

The vagueness arises because there is no systematic reckoning of the soft skills that are developed. Meanwhile, hard skills are easier to assess, quantify and turn into boxes that a recruiter (or their applicant filtering algorithm) can tick.

As a result, employers tend to gravitate towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates whose skills are ‘harder’ (in the sense of specificity, rather than difficulty necessarily). Meanwhile, students – particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds – have gravitated towards vocation-oriented subjects in the often-misguided belief that the supposed hard skills training offered must equate to the career success that tends to be their reason for going to university.

And yet, all higher education courses imbue students with soft skills to a greater or lesser degree. Pun intended.

We need a way to systematise the gathering of soft skills. For prospective students. this would make explicit exactly how the course will improve their employability and which jobs they would be qualified to do. For employers, it would not only make it clearer what each candidate has to offer in terms of differing skill sets – because, remember, jobs rarely require the same mix of skills.

Furthermore, the very act of making explicit what skills the course aims to develop might help to bring it about. A student delivering a presentation to a seminar of their peers may gain communication skills, but just think how that process could be improved by telling them beforehand that that is what this exercise will do and is intended to do, and consolidating that learning afterwards by merely inviting the student to reflect on whether they learnt anything about communication and, if so, what?

Meanwhile, for academics it would provide a simple way of embedding employability into everything they already do without a fundament change to their mindset, or radical retraining in concerns that never interested them in the first place.

How would this work in practice?

Every course should publish as part of the course description its intended soft skills outcomes. It might look something like this:

Within that, each module should have its own chart, showing the student how they’re working towards their skill set. Ideally, it would even form part of the assessment process and would be published alongside the student’s degree classification or Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR)5.

To complete the circle, employers should do the same in terms of what they’re looking for. Something like this:

Students can clearly see jobs for which they are more suited (as can employers) and they can see gaps in their skill sets that they may be able to plug through extra-curricular activities (such as sports that build teamwork), specific employability training or work experience.

Meanwhile, the employers’ applicant filtering algorithms have an easier job to do – and, one might hope, a more accurate one.

Among the many advantages of a framework like this is are that it encourages students from all backgrounds to develop their employability on the basis of reflecting on their actual skills, rather than the stereotyped attributes of different social groups. It is also an inexpensive way to make a big change, with an incentive for all stakeholders to adopt the framework on an individual basis, which would then build to systematic benefits if it became common practice.

Johnny Rich is a media and higher education specialist with various roles as Publisher of brands such as Push (the leading independent resource for prospective students), Real World Magazine, the Recruiters’ Guide to Courses & Campuses and the Oxbridge Students’ Careers Resource. He is also a director of the Higher Education Academy. He appears regularly on television and radio as a specialist on students and higher education issues.

    1. See University Degrees: impact on lifecycle of earnings, BIS, 2013 ( An alternative interpretation of the figures would suggest that the reason for the resilience of the graduate premium is more indicative of the lack of employment of opportunities for non-graduates, than of the extra value placed on graduates.
    2. Times Higher Education-Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey 2014, March 2014 ( As it happens, CBI/NUS Working towards your future: Making the most of your time in higher education, recorded an even higher proportion (79%) stating improved career prospects as their primary reason in March 2011, but improved salary was not an option in that survey.
    3. YouGov poll (August 2013, on behalf of the Times and the Sunday Times) of 635 business decision-makers in employers found that “52% of graduate employers said none or few graduate recruits were work ready when they joined – with 17% of companies saying none of them were work ready and a further 35% saying only a few of them were.” (
    4. CBI/NUS Working towards your future: Making the most of your time in higher education, March 2011. (
    5. The Higher Education Achievement Record (HEAR) is a more detailed summary of the student’s accomplishments throughout their course. In partnership with a number of universities, the Higher Education Academy is also currently trialing a Grade Point Average (GPA) approach to assessment as the traditional grading system has proved inadequate for, among other, employers.

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