In 2020, the number of graduates recruited by the UK’s top employers was 12.3% lower than in 2019, according to High Fliers, this was the largest annual fall in graduate recruitment in 11 years.[1] Students set to graduate in 2022 are likely to face a similar set of barriers to those graduating in 2020. To give students more opportunities in the job market, universities need to provide students with chances to develop more employable skills.

Sheffield Hallam has recognised these issues students are facing and worked to include employable skills as part of every subject taught at the university. Esther Kent, Academic Director for Employability, shared with us some of the different ways various subjects have tailored employable skills to best fit in with their individual curriculums.

Sheffield Hallam University

What is the Employability Plan at Sheffield Hallam?

To support the realisation of Sheffield Hallam’s University’s mission and become the world’s leading applied university, a bold, value-driven commitment was made through an ambitious Employability Plan to embed employability into all that we do.  This commitment was strategically aligned to the University’s ambition to “create real-world opportunities for tomorrow’s responsible leaders”.  It had at its heart the aspiration of generating social capital, helping students to build networks and gain access to labour market opportunities.

Employability is not just about skills or the sole responsibility of the Careers team.  To be effective in our approach to employability required a combined and collaborative approach, not a single focus, intervention, programme, or activity.  This encompassed the full educational spectrum of values from imparting knowledge and understanding to developing skills and attributes.  The Hallam Employability Plan required the need to ‘better prepare our students’, to ‘enhance employer engagement’ and ensure meaningful and progressive employability through an ‘integrated and applied curriculum’. These three areas formed the foundation for an institutional step change to translate Hallam’s employability plan and ambition into the classroom, mobilising action across the University and providing a graduate talent pipeline to support civic ambitions through the Curriculum integrated Employability framework.

How did we achieve this?

To achieve this Hallam provided course teams with a framework for integrating employability into the curriculum and empowered course teams to bring employability to life through their modules.  This enabled meaningful, progressive, and subject-relevant modules to drive classroom learning across the Civic agenda. Examples of which can be summarised in curriculum Learning, Teaching, Assessment and Enhancement strategies which are either academic-led or delivered jointly with central teams. 

The success of an Employability plan can only be achieved through passionate adoption.  To demonstrate the range of innovative approaches developed by Hallam’s academics in response to our Civic University agenda and Employability Plan below you will find a range of case study vignettes which illustrate creative approaches to enhancing the employability and social capital of students from under-represented groups.

Academic Led Initiatives

Applied Projects centre on meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration between course teams and employers.  As Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE) award winners 2021, these projects are truly partnership based where the university influences industry and the industry influence the university by aligning curriculum content and assessment with employer and therefore labour market needs.  The design and delivery of this model support all students towards engagement with employers, including students who may encounter barriers and thus require additional support for success.  

The student experience involves a staged process of taught subject-specific content and project support. This includes digital employer project briefings, demonstrations, timetabled face-to-face meetings with the employers, in-class practice, formative feedback from practitioners, delivery of results to the employer and consequent summative student assessment related to both the process and outcomes of the project.

Quantitative data demonstrates an increase in student self-confidence in the level of impact they can have on the wider world.  In many cases negative trends of confidence reverse during the lifecycle of the project; and, consequently, employability is enhanced. For example, in criminology prior to the introduction of applied projects: 32% of students rated themselves as ‘confident’, post-intervention, 83% rated themselves as ‘confident’.  This firmly delivers on our Civic University Impact Test where we actively measure the impact of our activity.

Professional Project Module – Geographical Information Systems

An influential post-graduate module which exposes students, within a safe and supported framework, to sourcing and completing real-world activities.  The emphasis is on students taking the role of lead consultant.  This involves them finding their own consultancy opportunity and then confirming the agreement of service, negotiating the outcome, and delivering the project to required standards.  Empowering students to initiate contact with employers helps them to develop their social networking skills.  The consequent negotiation and project work enables the students to build confidence but also very practical workplace skills including contract negotiation (with a specific resource window (module hours)) and the planning and delivery of a consultancy project.  At the end of the module, the students have module marks, industry network contacts and an artefact that they can demonstrate to potential employers.   

Students are mentored by academic experts in the related industry who act in a strictly advisory capacity as they have no interaction with the employer.  They provide the students with a scaffold of support ranging from advice on networking approaches to employment contract negotiation tips and topic delivery insights.  Put simply, students own the entire experience and learn by doing.  This often has transformative effects on student confidence, application of knowledge, and self-awareness.

Interdisciplinary Learning in Practice

‘Innovation Consultancy Challenge: Food’

The 2019 British Academy of Management Education Practice Award Winning Food Innovation Consultancy Challenge module uses a balance of working with a high-profile company on a ‘real’ industry challenge with teamworking, reflection and action planning. Students undertaking the challenge have collaborated with many high-profile FTSE/FMCG companies including Asda Stores, Innocent, Taylors of Harrogate, Warburtons, Cranswick Foods and SMEs such as NibNibs of Barnsley.

Students present their findings to industry leaders, and this client work, alongside module tasks (including personal psychometrics and reflections on experience), is captured within an individual portfolio for assessment.  To support multidisciplinary learning, Food students work collaboratively with those studying journalism and finance to provide a genuinely multi-disciplinary project approach.  As the topics are high on government and industry agendas, students are providing a civic contribution and can recommend changes that are implemented into the client’s business. This provides students with a point of differentiation when entering the graduate marketplace. The module is a ‘game-changer’ whereby students develop graduate skills which are high on the employer’s wish list and consequently directly improve their employability.

Students’ interdisciplinary employer collaborations: Humanities

Motivated by the knowledge that due to the non-vocational nature of arts, humanities, and social science graduates from these subjects need employers to recognise they possess numerous transferable skills, such as communication, collaboration, analysis, and decision making, all of which make them highly employable.

To give students exposure to employers and work-integrated learning while simultaneously providing support for ‘The Arts’ in the Sheffield City Region, course teams combined the capability of each specialist subject to offer a powerful multidiscipline team of 220 students as a workforce for local employers.  Teams of students used their disciplinary knowledge to deliver each component of the challenge, project, or initiative, and then handed their work over to the next specialist team.

This flow of specialism allowed students to have their output challenged and reviewed in the context of how their component fitted into the project and supported the delivery of the outcome. Interestingly, student learning increased in relation to associated industries, how their expertise was received in the market and their impact on project outcomes, clients, and customers. 

Institutional Collaboration

It is important to acknowledge that employability does not exist in a classroom-based vacuum. For it to be successful there needs to be an organisational architecture in place to facilitate success.  The following cases demonstrate how academics have worked together with central university support resources to achieve Employability success. 

Entrepreneurship – Enterprise Residency

This module is delivered in partnership with Hallam’s Enterprise Team who provide students with opportunities to create, innovate and develop self-initiated commercial or social business ventures or projects. Its uniqueness is that it actively supports student entrepreneurship and market experimentation and in doing so helps students to develop resourceful, initiative and risk-taking behaviours; key entrepreneurial attributes.

Through either an individual or group approach, each pathway allows students to explore enterprise in a way that meets their personal needs and areas of interest.  They can research the viability of a new idea or expand an existing business venture all under the close supervision of experts, mentors, and peers.

Digital International Placement 

The Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) project was developed between La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia and Hallam.  The project had teams of students from the two universities working with Small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in either of the cities, addressing their challenges and pitching solutions. The project addressed the challenges of working with SMEs, across different time zones, with different academic schedules and to some degree different social expectations of countries and companies. Colleagues at both Universities advised and guided the process but the lead responsibility of effective digitally working was placed on the students. The MBA students took the lead responsibility for developing the brief with the SME, employing the design students’ knowledge to inform the process. This ensures students felt invested in the briefs. The work was acclaimed as of a professional standard and subsequently, some of the students have been engaged as consultants to deliver their recommendations for the SMEs.

The COIL projects have provided exemplary employer ‘placement’ experiences for students and developed students as networked transnational workers.  It has provided them with a clear opportunity to demonstrate a positive impact on SMEs on the other side of the world and additionally was delivered sustainably.  This is a clear example of the civic university in action as it tests place, strategy, and impact.  This project delivered both place (local SMEs), strategy: the university’s global partnership strategy and impact in terms of working with other institutions of maximising impact.

Short Work Placement: Sports

Embedded in a core module students undertake a series of preparatory, confidence building and networking activities to facilitate sourcing their own placement and boosting their career readiness. These include digital recruitment activities, networking events, selection events, industry awareness, resilience training and one-to-one personal mentoring from Academic Advisers, and Employability Advisers.

Placements are secured through a mixed-method approach whereby students can self-source their placement, or find one through university-sourced local and regional employers. This enables effective relationship management and quality assurance to ensure both employers and students benefit from the experience in a way which is personal to them. Such collaboration allows the course to quickly respond to changing environments, employer demands or student preferences.  The guiding principles are to replicate the graduate recruitment process and expose students to the challenges of the graduate labour market, while providing them with solutions and the self-awareness to succeed.

Institutional initiatives

It was clear from the start of the Employability Plan that there was a strong in-curriculum focus embedded across all courses.  However, as an institution, we recognised the need for additional interventions that would support the development of students’ social capital.  

Hallam Collective

The Hallam Collective is Sheffield Hallam Social Network that brings alumni, students, and staff together to form networks whereby they can develop their online social capital. The catalyst for the interactions stems from individual needs, ranging from the search for a mentor, to gaining insight from an employer or a specific role. The collective offers a safe space to connect with peers globally who have shared the experience of studying at Hallam and provides an opportunity for them to support one another beyond study and the classroom.

Many of our students are the first in their families to attend university and have found the platform provides the opportunity to easily connect and source mentor relationships that have inspired and driven them towards their aspirations. We have many case study illustrations of international digital collaboration that support this assertion. The transformative experience of study and work facilitated via the platform has the potential to leverage future engagement from individuals as alumni, creating a lifecycle of support for the current student body.

Class of 2022 Graduate Internships

A clear illustration of how SHU has fulfilled its Civic University approach by creating an impact through its work with other institutions is the graduate success offer.  Providing students with a safe, meaningful, and inspiring workplace with local employers through a paid internship scheme with a series of scaffolding support enables students to confidently apply the knowledge, and skills learned throughout their degree.  Delivering this opportunity during their transition into graduate employment offers a powerful springboard when entering a challenging graduate labour market and is a key enabler to full-time employment. Avoiding underemployment of graduates is a driver for this scheme increasing students’ graduate social mobility and fundamentally boosting their confidence in what they can achieve, transforming their lives.

The internships focus on SMEs in Sheffield City Region and supporting the most disadvantaged students.  Our widening participation representation is excellent with over 70% secured from students from widening participation backgrounds. With a 90% conversion rate of longer internships into full-time employment, this model is clearly an effective enabler for graduate employment.

Conclusion

The discussion above highlights the need for a strategy-driven, truly networked approach to achieving student employability success.  It has captured that not all institutions are the same and that as a Civic University we need to be cognisant of the ‘place’ we play in our communities and how we support students from those communities. 

Our narrative begins with a mission – to transform lives. To achieve this we had to transform our institution from having a traditional taught employability classes and careers service approach to students’ employability to something radically different, where the workplace enters the classroom for all students.  The Civic University approach requires universities to undertake a clear analysis and develop strategies when it comes to their activities.  We adopted this approach, developing in partnership with academics, students, and employers a clear employability plan.

Recommendations

There is a range of critical success factors when it comes to achieving this radical change, they are:

  • Senior Leadership Engagement – with radical change it is essential to have a champion for this work at the highest level of the institution
  • Understand your place – who are your students and what are their challenges – without this knowledge it is impossible to create a coherent strategy
  • Embedded strategy – create an employability plan that is embedded within the institutional mission and strategy.  Show how what you’re doing serves institutional drivers 
  • Support entrepreneurship – start early and maintain opportunities.  This is your institution’s contribution to your ‘place’ as your entrepreneurs create jobs and opportunities for others
  • Be radical – it is easy to accept ‘In my subject area we can’t… or we always’ listen to concerns, share data, offer support, then set the challenge and clear expectations – the change is happening for everyone
  • Be flexible – maintain the offer but look for alternatives when external factors get in the way
  • Embrace risk and creativity – aim to leave space for your academic teams to be creative within your framework and support them in taking risks with novel approaches
  • Network as an institution – think about your institution’s network capital within its ‘place’ – this enabled us to set up employer advisory boards in every Department.  Leverage this networked capital to secure work-based opportunities that will enhance the social capital of your students
  • Measure your impact – the work we have undertaken here has required significant investment and it is our responsibility to our civic stakeholders to demonstrate a return on investment
  • Tell your story – having made radical changes that are making a difference, tell your students why their curriculum looks different and get them to own the change and the advantages it brings

Of course, this isn’t the complete finished programme.  Much work is still to come, as we seek to crack the employability code, but we believe that by being radical and adopting a civic university approach we are well-positioned for continued sustainable success. 

[1] High Fliers(2020), The Graduate Market in 2021,

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In 2020, the number of graduates recruited by the UK's top employers was 12.3% lower than in 2019, according to High Fliers, this was the largest annual fall in graduate recruitment in 11 years. Esther Kent, Academic Director for Employability, shared with us some of the numerous ways departments have tailored employable skills to best fit in with their course curriculums.

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