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Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences
Developing a Departmental
This article describes the development of an employability strategy
in the Environmental and Geographical Sciences Department at Manchester
Metropolitan University. The Department has had a history of involvement
with employers and the provision of work experience. It is now building
on this experience by developing a strategy to improve employability amongst
its students. The strategy will be informed by national and local policy
and initial consultations have been carried out. Opportunities have been
identified which can offer students a “menu” of employability
choices. The strategy will influence the forthcoming academic review of
courses. The article also suggests possible ways forward to implement
“Higher education, employers and the Government need to engage
in a wider debate about enhancing employability among an increasingly
diverse student population.” Universities UK (2002)
In 1997 the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (Dearing
Report) (NCIHE, 1997) recommended that higher education institutions should
help students to consider the relevance of work experience for their personal
and future development. More specifically, the NCIHE made recommendations
to increase the opportunities for work experience and for meaningful reflection
about such experience.
Since Dearing, the discussion has broadened from purely work experience
to the agendas of employability and work related learning. Universities
UK’s report “Enhancing employability, Recognising diversity”
(Universities UK, 2002) supports the shift in thinking and action on employability
away from bolt-on marginal and optional activities towards efforts that
are better integrated into the curriculum. Much of the literature has
emphasised transferable skills (AGR, 1995) (DES, 2002). However, there
are many other attributes which graduates can hope to acquire which will
make them more employable. Universities UK wants to see a holistic approach
which integrates knowledge, work experience and technical and interactive
skills development, together with reflection on the needs of a flexible
The Universities UK report identifies three aspects of employability
which HE institutions should address, namely:
- development of employability attributes;
- development of self-promotional and career management skills; and
- a willingness to learn and reflect on learning.
The Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences is currently
preparing an employability strategy and is considering the concepts identified
above. The Department has had a long-term commitment to working with outside
organisations and helping students to develop their careers. It offers
a range of courses at both undergraduate and Masters level. The undergraduate
courses are particularly popular with geography students, whereas the
Masters syllabus focuses on environmental subjects and geographical information
systems. They can be classed as degrees with a vocational element rather
than vocational degrees. To date formal employability related learning
has been delivered mainly through work experience and careers education.
Undergraduate students can opt to study abroad in their second year.
The careers now open to both environmental and geography students have
broadened. Whilst it had been dominated by voluntary sector for many years,
it now tends to be more office-based and predominantly public sector with
the number of jobs in private sector consultancies increasing.
The Department has been organising work placements for students for over
16 years. In the early years undergraduate students on the environmental
courses welcomed the opportunity to gain practical experience and staff
developed relevant contacts in outside organisations.
There are a number of opportunities within the curriculum for work experience.
All the undergraduate courses can be taken in sandwich mode. In addition
students can opt to undertake a two-week placement in their first year
and/or a four-week placement in their second year. At the Masters level
most students undertake their dissertation for an outside organisation.
Students gain much from this experience. It gives them the opportunity
to apply knowledge gained in a classroom or laboratory to a real life
situation. However, the additional benefits are to increase their understanding
of the workings of a relevant organisation, to network with people in
their area of interest and to try out a potential career.
Since the early 1990s there has been a comprehensive Careers Programme
throughout all the years of the undergraduate courses. It was later extended
to the Masters provision.
All students can join in sessions on job search, CV preparation, job applications
and interview technique. There are talks by visiting employers. Students
who wish to study careers education in more depth can opt to study accredited
units which are linked to the placements and form part of their degree
programme. The units include an exploration of the student’s skills,
values and preferences and includes practical advice and mock interviews.
The University Careers Service complements the departmental provision
with sessions on psychometric tests and assessment centres.
There is also a resource of departmental web pages signposting students
to information about relevant careers and work experience.
All the undergraduate courses include a strong skills input. In the first
year there is a Skills Week covering the basic skills a graduate would
be expected to acquire. Throughout the courses these skills are developed
and higher level skills are introduced. The Department was part of the
Skills Plus project http://www.open.ac.uk/vqportal/Skills-Plus/home.htm
which identified and categorised the skills within the curriculum.
The concept of “employability” has a number of interpretations.
Jan Moore’s article in an earlier issue of LTiA (Moore, 2002) referred
to the diverse definitions used by different organisations. A good working
definition is provided by the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN),
“a set of achievements -skills, understandings and personal
attributes - that make graduates more likely to gain employment and
be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves,
the workforce, the community and the economy.”
(Yorke, Knight et al, 2003)
Employability is a quality, not merely a set of activities and skills.
Therefore the key question is
“What else do students need
to make them more employable?”
Much of the literature provides lists of attributes (Durkin & Main
2002) and (Haigh & Kilmartin 1999) which include the familiar range
of skills such as communication, numeracy and critical analysis. Interestingly,
there has also been an increasing representation of more sophisticated
attributes such as intrinsic motivation (Stubbs & Keeping, 2002),
and political sensitivity.
This extra ingredient appears to be what Salovey & Mayer (1990) describe
as “Emotional Intelligence”. They describe emotional intelligence
(or EQ) and compare it with IQ (intelligent quotient), stating that in
order to succeed in life we need both.
- managing emotions,
- motivating oneself,
- empathy with others
- the ability to handle relationships.
These attributes point to a maturity that goes well beyond the set of
transferable skills as traditionally identified. A person who has developed
their EQ is able to take responsibility for their own career and thus
to develop their own confidence and job satisfaction. The idea has similarities
with concept of “capability” as described by (Stephenson &
Weil, 1992). “Capable people are those who: know how to learn; are
creative; have a high degree of self-efficacy; can apply competencies
in novel as well as familiar situations; and work well with others. In
comparison to competency, which involves the acquisition of knowledge
and skills, capability is a holistic attribute.”
Employers want their employees to have intellectual rigour and to be
self-starters as the two quotes below indicate.
“Candidates should be able to demonstrate the intellectual
capability to understand and analyse complex information and ideas”.
Charles Miller Smith, chairman of Scottish Power (Claridge, 2002)
"I don’t care what you did your degree in, really don’t
… It is as much if not more about personal traits, personal drive
and ambition.”(Company Director, quoted in Harvey et al, 1997,
At the time of the previous academic review the Department carried out
a survey of organisations that had employed our graduates or taken students
on placement. The organisations stressed the importance of work experience,
either placement or sandwich. They emphasised personal skills (reliability,
initiative) and interpersonal skills, and wanted students to have evidence
of tackling real problems.
The Department has an Employers’ Liaison Panel as an ongoing mechanism
for keeping in touch with employers’ needs. It meets when necessary
and has given opinions on curriculum development and advised specifically
about placements and assessment.
The government and the employers are advocating a greater emphasis on
employability, but what about the students? In a recent survey of second
year Environmental and Geographical Sciences students 53% ranked “improve
career prospects” as the most important reason for coming to university.
The first stage in the preparation of the strategy was to examine the
policy background. There are a number of policies that this initiative
must take into account. Some are general, eg Universities UK “Enhancing
employability, recognising diversity”, the Institution’s Strategic
Review and the Strategy for Reach Out. More specifically the MMU Framework
for Career Management and Development gives strong backing for this approach.
It states “arrangements for taught programmes will ensure that …..
every opportunity is taken to ensure that students of the University
are well prepared to achieve their potential in industry, commerce and
the wider community.” (author’s emphasis)
Consultations have also been carried out with the Careers Service and
the External Relations Division at MMU. In addition discussions have been
pursued with the LTSN Generic Centre and LTSN-GEES, the Subject Centre
Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. The idea
was also presented at the LTSN Bio-Sciences Real World Swap Shop which
promoted some interesting discussion and contacts.
It was decided to analyse current undergraduate provision by adapting
the Employability Audit developed by the LTSN Biosciences Subject Centre,
The audit is not subject specific and covers relevant general issues.
It would complement the Skills Plus analysis which was carried out on
a unit basis.
The following headings were used:-
- Do you know who employs your graduates?
- Are your students aware at an early stage of the graduate employment
opportunities open to them?
- Are potential employers aware of the attributes/skills your students
- Do your students have confidence and high aspirations?
- Are your students helped in making applications for employment?
- Are your students helped to steer their university experiences towards
- Do your students have the skills to manage degree programme choices
and their careers?
- Does your curriculum promote employability?
- Are your students encouraged to obtain work experience?
- Is the contribution of extra-curricula activities to employability
- Have you considered employability in the context of widening participation
There are six or seven questions under each heading. The audit has a
scoring system. This was used initially, however it has greater value
by using it as a checklist to prompt discussion.
This showed that many of aspects of employability are currently being
covered, eg work-based or work-related learning experience and employability-related
units within the curriculum. The areas where more could be done are:
- making potential employers aware of students’ skills
- improving student confidence and aspirations
- the contribution of extra-curricula activities
- making links to employability more explicit, especially for those
students who do not do a placement
- widening participation and disability
The Postgraduate Network will be considered later as it will be delivered
in distance learning mode which will introduce a new set of challenges
The next stage was to identify opportunities to enhance employability
within and outside the curriculum.
“Employability is compatible with many descriptions of good learning
in general and is not just about learning about and for work.” (Yorke
& Knight, 2002). The curriculum offers a number of possibilities to
encourage employability and these will be explored during the review of
This point of view is echoed by Shepherd (1998) “It is important
that we do not obscure or downplay the contributions that well-designed,
discipline-based learning experiences can make towards the development
of students’ personal transferable skills”.
An event for employers is planned for the Autumn. Local contacts will
be invited into the Department to find out about students’ work
and hopefully to obtain more offers of placements.
Problem-based learning is an area where students can be set new challenges
which mirror real life. Boud and Felietti (1997) advocate the introduction
of problem-based learning as a way to engage students in effective learning
which takes place in the context in which it will be used. It can also
improve students’ confidence in their ability to operate in the
world of work. There are currently examples of good practice, eg on field
trips, poster presentations and writing bids for funding. There may be
opportunities for more.
Every undergraduate student has to write a dissertation (20 credits)
or a research-based project (40 credits). Some use the contacts that they
have made on their placements and develop a piece of work from that. There
is further scope to tie in more dissertations and projects with outside
organisations and real life problems.
Outside the curriculum there are many opportunities. The majority of
students now have some paid employment. Recent surveys showed that about
60 per cent of full-time students worked during term-time and over 80
per cent of full-time students worked over the summer vacation (Universities
UK, 2002). Many students gain valuable experience from voluntary work
such as in Students Union societies or in their own communities.
In order to help students make the most of term time and vacation employment
the Department has recently made partnerships with key organisations in
the region, such as the Step scheme, Insight Plus, Steam, (Student Training
& Employment About Manchester). “The coMMUni project”
has potential, it is a Higher Education Active Community Fund scheme to
support and encourage students and staff to volunteer in the community.
There are a number of advantages of students gaining their employment
through a recognised “student friendly” agency. The Department
can help to advertise these intermediary organisations at induction to
ensure students have good quality employment.
Many students work in the retail or leisure sectors and this can be challenging.
One employer who came to talk to the students felt that Saturday work
in a shoe shop is excellent background for professional jobs in his organisation.
It shows evidence of patience, staying power and diplomacy.
There are other things students can do on their own. The Virtual
Career Coach is an online range of exercises to help people to manage
their careers. It recognises that the world of work is changing quickly
and that everybody needs to manage their own careers. The Windmills Programme
takes its inspiration from a simple quotation: “When the wind blows,
some people build walls... others build windmills.” In other words,
it's pointless to resist the winds of change sweeping through today's
world of work – you have to turn them to your own advantage. This
is the type of empowerment which Salovey and Mayer (1990) were advocating
in their concept of Emotional Intelligence. There are also Departmental
Careers pages with information specific to Environmental and Geographical
As well as engaging in these activities students must provide evidence
of what they have done and what they have learned. Students already draw
on their placement experience for CVs, job applications, at assessment
centre and at interview. Barr and McNeilly (2002) identified a problem
of students not making the most of the career-relevant experience in their
classrooms. They found that students willingly included work experience
on their CVs but did not use evidence from activities in the classroom
eg group projects, client consultations. This problem can be addressed
by giving more guidance to students about the range of activities which
they can draw upon to demonstrate employability. Staff can be encouraged
to emphasise these points when writing job references.
From 2005/6 students will have Progress Files as part of a national scheme.
Part of this is the Personal Development Plan (PDP – also see Trevor
Williamson’s article in this issue) which is a process to help
students to plan and take responsibility for their own learning. Students
who undertake a placement in the Department already complete a reflective
proforma. The PDP will be a vehicle for ensuring this reflective process
to happen for other students.
The Next Stage
A draft strategy will be produced and further consultation carried out.
Departmental staff can debate the extent to which the employability provision
is strengthened. Selected employers from the Department’s range
of contacts will also be consulted.
The proposed philosophy is to offer these opportunities as a “menu”
of employability choices. Students will not be forced to undertake “employability
training” but there will be many opportunities for students who
wish to enhance their career prospects in so doing. However it should
not be seen as a “take it or leave it” option. Students will
be required to make a commitment to a particular activity and must then
carry it through.
Implementation and monitoring
The production of the strategy is timely because both the undergraduate
and the postgraduate provision are being reviewed during the academic
year. The strategy will include recommendations about how it will be monitored.
The audit will be used again to compare progress with the base line data.
In particular student destinations will be collected as a long term measure
The process of developing a departmental employability strategy has been
started. Many universities are working on institution-wide strategies
but departmental strategies are still unusual. The Department’s
strategy is an important step towards turning national and local policies
into action. The overall aim is to build students’ confidence and
their employability so that they can follow the career they want.
The author is happy to discuss any aspect of this paper, particularly
with staff who have worked on similar projects.
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telephone: 0161 247 1573
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