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MMU Learning and Teaching in Action
Volume 3, Issue 3: Focusing on Students

Published by: Learning and Teaching Unit

Rachel Forsyth

Conceptualising the Student-Tutor relationship
David Webster

Developing and Sharing Best Practice
Della Fazey

Plagiarism: a how NOT to do it guide for students
Bill Johnston

Designing out Plagiarism & supporting Widening Participation
Richard Eskins

Enhancing Feedback to Students
Jonathan Willson

Degrees of Uncertainty or TIPS for Success?
Gill Rice & Karen Duggan

The Employability of History Students
David Nicholls

Diversity and Achievement
Kate Kirk

LT2004 fast-forward: A winning formula
Mike Cole

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

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david nicholls

David Nicholls

Department of History & Economic History

The Employability of History Students
an NTFS Project


I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2002 but was unable to begin work on my project for twelve months because of ongoing commitments as Head of Department – not least the need to see through a QAA Developmental Engagement. With these out of the way, I have begun the project in earnest and have made very good progress over the last twelve months.

In my Fellowship proposal, I indicated that I wished to undertake a project on the employability of history students. Primarily, this would involve a ‘skills’ audit’, by way of questionnaires, of the competences and personal attributes of history students. Preliminary investigations had shown that history students enter a diverse range of careers in which some of them are eminently successful.1 I wanted to understand more about why this was so and also to use my research as a basis for promoting the study of history. To that end, I had tentatively suggested in my project-bid that I would use the Fellowship as a springboard to raise further funding to enable me to produce a film of famous history graduates that would be targeted at 14-year old pupils making their GCSE option choices.

The first stage of the project involved sending out questionnaires to four categories of history students: pupils currently taking ‘A’ levels, third-year undergraduates, graduates three years after leaving university, and distinguished history graduates. Teachers in six schools and eleven universities kindly agreed to assist with the distribution, collation and return of the questionnaires. SPSS has been used as the statistical tool to record and analyse the data.

There is a burgeoning literature on ‘skills’ and ‘employability’ and there have been several major projects which have included history students among the sample.(2) However, my project is new in at least five ways. Firstly, previous projects were concerned with what might be termed ‘throughput’ (the skills acquired by students in higher education) and ‘output’ (the utilisation of skills in employment), but there is very little in the literature on ‘input’ (the skills students bring with them into higher education). My project examines the skills history students possess, or claim to possess, before they come to university and thereby raises questions about whether higher education is focussing skills teaching in the most appropriate areas. Secondly, the project deals only with history students and the data are drawn from the largest sample of them to date. Moreover, the findings will be combined with those from the related projects to produce a still more comprehensive picture. Thirdly, the project also examines the skills development of individuals as they progress from school to employment and thereby plots strengths and weaknesses in skills teaching across time. Fourthly, famous history graduates have been included in order to see if any factors could be uncovered that might help to explain their success and to allow comparisons to be made with the other sample cohorts. Finally, the project is unique in asking questions about the personality of history students to see if there is any correlation between aspects of their character and psychology and their employability.

Several trenchant criticisms have been lodged against the skills-oriented pedagogy that has been promoted in higher education over the past two decades. Skills lists are probabilistic; skills development is context-dependent and therefore there are question-marks about their ‘transferability’ from education to work; above all, the government- and employer-driven focus on the knowledge economy is profoundly misplaced and has led to an instrumentalist and utilitarian approach to education. I address these criticisms in my project. My approach is underpinned by a belief that a curriculum that pays attention to the future employability of its students need not, and should not, be incompatible with good learning. I use the terms ‘skills agenda’ and ‘employability’ as shorthand forms for a curriculum that seeks to make students better prepared for the world of work (and post-graduate life in general) through the inculcation of active approaches to learning. Much of the early resistance among academics to the new pedagogy has, in fact, now subsided and the latter has largely been absorbed into the practice of teaching in universities. It is a requirement of external and internal quality assurance and validation that skills are taught and assessed, the preparation of students for work has been endorsed by universities in their adoption of the code of practice on careers, and QAA benchmark statements have interpreted skills in subject-specific contexts. Whatever their lingering doubts, academics have proved themselves adept at incorporating skills into their programmes and accommodating the rationale for the skills agenda to their own pedagogic beliefs and practices. It is in any case difficult to object to pedagogic arguments for many ‘generic’ skills that are clearly also of ‘subject’ importance. It is not unreasonable to apprise students of the career opportunities that their degrees open up for them – indeed, they demand as much. The fact of the matter is that only a small percentage will ever use their discipline knowledge again once they have graduated, and employers take little account of it in their recruitment practices, whereas the ability to learn how to learn will serve graduates throughout their lives.

So, while there is still some way to go, the last few years have witnessed significant progress in teaching and learning in higher education. Most tutors do not see skills and knowledge development as mutually exclusive. Skills are increasingly embedded in programmes in an integrated, interdependent and progressive way, and they are made explicit to students in course documentation. Compared with the old-style curriculum, there has been a shift from individual to collaborative forms of learning, assessment has become much more varied and the pedagogic value of formative assessment is better appreciated, diverse approaches to teaching have been tried enabling students to apply skills in a variety of situations (including in some cases the workplace), more attention is now paid to oral communication, and students are encouraged to reflect much more on their learning by way of such devices as learning contracts, progress files and personal development plans.

The philosophy that underpins my project is closely aligned with that developed since the late 1980s by the RSA’s Capability Movement and more recently by ESECT (Enhancing Student Employability Coordination Team), which has much in common with the capability approach to learning. ESECT has been at the forefront of promoting the employability agenda and, in a previous incarnation (as Skills Plus), worked with departments at MMU to develop an employability-oriented curriculum. The ESECT definition of ‘employability’ is ‘a set of achievements, skills and personal attributes that make students more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupation, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy’.(3) Employable students will be flexible, adaptive, autonomous learners capable of reflecting on their learning so that they can continue to develop, not just at university but afterwards in their careers.

If the contribution to promoting the employability of history students has been the central thrust of my project, like all research it has had spin-offs, some anticipated but others unforeseen. Of these, two have been of particular significance in influencing the overall direction of the project.

As a by-product of liaising with school-teachers, I became much more knowledgeable about the state of history teaching in schools and increasingly drawn into the campaign to defend its threatened status. England is the only country in Europe where history is not a compulsory part of the curriculum to age sixteen. As a result, nearly two-thirds of pupils drop the subject when they make their GCSE option-choices at the end of Key Stage 3. This should be a cause of concern to university historians, not just because of their belief in the educational value of their subject, but also for the more selfish reason that it might have an adverse effect on the numbers studying the subject in higher education and therefore impact on their jobs. As yet, however, despite the fact that the number of students taking GCSE history remains below levels reached over ten years ago, university intakes have continued to rise year-on-year. The problem faced by the schools has therefore only impinged marginally, if at all, on the consciousness of university lecturers. For school teachers, however, it has been a source of continuing worry and, in consequence, the Historical Association has launched a campaign, backed up by a major, government-funded consultation exercise, designed to increase the opportunities for studying history at school. The recommendations of the consultation exercise will be published towards the end of 2004 and will hopefully feed into the deliberations on curricular reform that will follow the final report of the Tomlinson review. I was invited by the coordinator, who had heard about my project, to take part in the consultation exercise. I was able also to publicise the crisis in the school curriculum by way of an article in History Today which took the opportunity to encourage others to add their voices to the campaign.(4)

The second important spin-off from the project has been success in securing funding for making the film of famous graduates. This too is intended to assist the campaign to promote history in schools in that it is to be used to encourage pupils to continue with history at Key Stage 4. The funding came as a direct consequence of including famous history graduates in my sample. I had identified around two hundred from a wide range of careers. They included the heir to the throne, a prime-minister-in-waiting (Gordon Brown), a man widely-tipped to be a future Archbishop of Canterbury (Hugh Chartres), the former General Secretary of the TUC John Monks, the arts critic Sir Roy Strong, the novelist Salman Rushdie, the playwright Alan Bennett, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G), traveller and former Python Michael Palin, the BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen, pop-singers Neil Tennant and Chris Martin, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University Colin Lucas, the ex-England footballer Steve Coppell, the head of MI6 John Scarlett, the chief executive of Woolworths Gerald Corbett, and our very own vice-chancellor, Sandra Burslem. A truly remarkable number of history graduates hold key positions in civil society and have become the movers-and-shakers of modern-day Britain.(5)

I had expected that only a handful would take the time and trouble to respond to my questionnaire and was pleasantly surprised (to say the least) when almost one hundred replied. One of them, Lord John Sainsbury, president of the family supermarket business, invited me to meet him to discuss the project and, afterwards, to apply to his charitable trust to fund my proposed film. The application (for £50,000) has now been approved; filming will commence in October; the video-material will be incorporated into a DVD that will include a range of other resources for use by teachers in promoting history; and the DVD in turn will be distributed by the Historical Association free to schools as part of a resource-pack entitled Choosing History at 14. I am currently writing up my findings from the skills audit and hope as well to produce a separate article on the role of personal psychology in the employability of history graduates.

The Fellowship has therefore been an immensely enjoyable experience. It has also been a valuable learning experience and has provided the time and opportunity for personal development. It has vastly improved my knowledge of the school history curriculum, primary as well as secondary, and led to many new contacts. It has been especially gratifying to find that so many people have carried their love of history with them beyond graduation, some predictably as teachers of the subject, but many others into careers where history has no automatic or immediately apparent relevance. It has helped me reflect on the undergraduate history curriculum, its content and delivery, in the light of employability issues. It has introduced me to a network of colleagues with shared interests – as well as their annual two-day conference and other ad hoc meetings during the year, NTFs have organised themselves into a lobby-group and are pressing for representation in the Higher Education Academy, and have inititiated online debates on learning and teaching issues. Also, my project has led to invitations to join national networks such as the Employability Forum and to participate in conferences on employability. New possibilities are emerging all the time. For example, following the recent round of awards, there are now ten NTFs who are historians, probably the largest single-subject grouping, and I invited them to a meeting at MMU in July which identified areas for future collaboration.

In sum, as well as providing a resource for project-research and the chance to explore new horizons, the Fellowship also provides an opportunity for personal refreshment and renewal. It is to be highly recommended to anyone thinking of applying.



1 See Nicholls, D. (2001) What’s the Use of History? Career Opportunities for History Graduates, http:// hca.ltsn.ac.uk/history/h-journal.php.

2 See Brennan, J. et al (2001) The Employment of UK Graduates: Comparisons with Europe and Japan Buckingham: Open University & CHERI, a very large international survey undertaken by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, which sampled 114 UK history graduates; PITAR (Programme Improvement Through Alumni Research) surveyed 111 history graduates and its reports can be found online at www.pitar.co.uk; Mason, G. et al (2002) How Much Does Higher Education Enhance the Employability of Graduates (HEFCE Report) includes data based on interviews with just twenty history graduates. For an excellent guide to the literature on employability, see Lees, D. (2002) ‘Graduate Employability – Literature Review’, LTSN.

3 There are many excellent ESECT publications on their web-site located at the LTSN (www.ltsn.ac.uk/ generic centre). A selection is now available in hard copy entitled Learning and Employability and available free of charge from the LTSN Generic Centre.

4 Nicholls, D. (2004)‘Crisis in the Classroom’. History Today, 54, 8,18-21. There are encouraging signs of a developing awareness among university historians of the need for improved channels of communication with schools and a major conference on the whole history curriculum from primary school to postgraduate level, at which I have been invited to speak, is to be held at the Institute of Historical Research , 14-15 February 2005.

5 For a fuller list, see Nicholls, D. (2002) ‘Famous History Graduates’. History Today, 52 , 8, 49-51.

David Nicholls
e-mail: D.Nicholls@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 1733


Winter 2004
ISSN 1477-1241

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