Developing an employability skills curriculum for future graduates

Lorraine Bell
Cranfield University

15th April, 2020

Embedding skills into higher education curriculum is not new to universities, however, it is an area which has received more attention in recent years to ensure that graduates have the right skills at the right time to support national and international economic productivity. This blog will share the employability skills frameworks and approaches used by Cranfield and Aston Universities before describing the journey that MK:U is on to develop its own skills curriculum.

Employability skills at Cranfield University

At Cranfield University, course modules provide learners with the majority of the core employability skills recommended for successful career progression, with the University’s teaching staff playing an instrumental role in emphasising the employability context of the module content. Additionally, the University provides online resources and workshops in key areas of development, as identified by students, such as presentation skills, personal development planning, reflection activities, leadership and resilience.

To provide a consistent approach towards transferable/employability skills offered across the University, the Centre for Andragogy and Academic Skills (CAAS) developed a ‘Cranfield Competency Framework’. The competencies are clustered under four different groupings: ‘Communications and Relationships’, ‘Personal Attributes’, ‘Leadership’ and ‘Business’, each of which expand to sub-levels, as seen in the picture below.

Employability skills at Aston University

At Aston University, employability skills are woven through the very fabric of the student journey and its vision is to create ‘the most employable graduates’. For circa 80% of courses employability is curriculum delivered, credit-bearing and assessed as standard. In addition, c2000 (over 70%) of eligible students undertake a yearlong placement or pre-registration in their third year putting theory into practice and developing real world work experience. This is designed to strengthen transferable skills valued by employers, such as team working, communications and problem solving. The placement experience offers students the chance to become adaptable, confident and develop a greater self-awareness. Research tells us that integrated placements can improve academic performance, as well as make a significant difference to an individual’s employment prospects, and make a positive contribution to social mobility and ability to work in a global context.

Developing a framework for the MK:U skills curriculum

Developing the higher education curriculum for MK:U has been done through extensive consultations with a range of businesses and industries about the skills of the future at a series of workshops and ‘round tables’. It soon became apparent at these events that ‘professional skills’ – i.e. abilities such as communication, team-working, resilience and many others – were at the forefront of employers’ future requirements, even where the companies were producing technical products or services. Still worse, employers at our workshops often commented that these highly valued skills, required by individuals throughout their careers, are not always visible in potential candidates at selection. However, those graduates who are fully equipped and prepared to demonstrate knowledge, skills and behaviours beyond their technical degree are well placed for the world of work. With this in mind we have put professional skills at the core of the educational curriculum development for MK:U.

Business engaged educational design

MK:U’s strong focus on professional skills is a result of our close business engagement during the educational design phase of course development. This, along with educational innovation and innovative delivery modes, make up the three key themes of the MK:U philosophy to ensure we offer a distinctive undergraduate experience in STEM-focussed programmes.

To establish close business engagement, each course designed for MK:U has been through a series of design workshops with industry experts, future potential employers and academics. It was during each of these workshops that the importance of the professional skills curriculum became paramount. The discussions indicated a need for a curriculum of skills to complement and enhance each technical degree in a way that will develop individuals and support them at different stages throughout their career. Such was its importance that, at times, workshop attendees focused more on the required professional skills than the technical degree content. The strength of the results from industry engagement made it clear to us at MK:U that it would be essential to have a skills curriculum running throughout the degree journey in a fully integrated way and not just alongside it.

A distinctive model

Many education providers have substantial careers advice and skills development, although not often credit-bearing and sometimes provided after hours as a supplementary activity with low emphasis compared to the academic demands on students. At MK:U this will be different; the skills defined by industry will be credit-bearing towards the final degree and delivered to all students within their timetabled hours. Future employers can be confident that a MK:U graduate will have covered essential professional skills and will have met a minimum requirement within these skills in order to qualify for their award.

The key skills ‘personal development’, ‘business awareness’ and ‘working effectively’, shown in the MK:U framework above, will be delivered and assessed in the first two years of the degree during specialised timetabled skill slots, online provision, company visits, external speaker events and individual and group activities. These skills will be reinforced in some of the technical modules and taken further as specialisms if required. The skills curriculum will culminate in a substantial project (‘professional project’) which will consolidate the technical and professional skills acquired throughout the entire degree programme.

To enable students to demonstrate competency in professional skills, they will build an e-portfolio of evidence to be assessed as part of their development. The evidence will be in the form of artefacts produced throughout their programme, alongside reflective pieces of work from individual and group activities. Relevant sections of the e-portfolio can be shared with potential employers alongside a CV at the time of employment application or interview.

Professional skills at MK:U will be delivered through a variety of methods; face-to-face, individual and group activities, online apps, digital content, industry expert workshops and company visits. Graduates from MK:U will not only have been through an employer-designed programme but they will have been taught and assessed by industry professionals as well.

Involving industry experts in the delivery and assessment of the professional skills modules, alongside academics, will support continued close business engagement to keep the degree content fresh and relevant. The skills offering will be continually reviewed with industry and employers to ensure that the topics remain relevant to the graduate market and to industry needs. In addition, the regular industrial and employer workshops that have been imperative in the initial design phase will continue beyond the launch of the first MK:U undergraduate courses. This will enable us to measure the success of the skills and our students’ employability readiness.

The close engagement of industry in course design, delivery and assessment, as well as the spectrum of delivery opportunities and the close alignment between professional skills and technical course content during the course design phase, leads us to believe that MK:U will provide a distinctive offering and strong employability credentials in its graduates.

Follow this link for more information on MK:U curriculum development

Lorraine Bell

Lorraine Bell, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at Cranfield University, contributes expertise to the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.

This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project.


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