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Embedding employability in the curriculum: CALT conference report

24 April 2013

A UCL conference dedicated to discussing how we can best prepare students for the world of work through their academic work provided plenty of food for thought, writes Ele Cooper.

Participants at the 2013 CALT Teaching and Learning Conference

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education), opened last week’s conference on embedding employability in the curriculum, which was organised by the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) and the Careers Service. Anthony began by reminding the audience that focusing on students’ future careers has never been more important, especially with the increase in fees making many choose a course purely based on what they hope to do afterwards. He argued that our programmes need to have a “distinctive edge”, which he believes can be achieved through focusing on the global citizenship agenda.

Employability is a central theme in UCL’s interpretation of global citizenship: departments should aim to produce graduates who are ambitious, committed, ethical, entrepreneurial and enterprising. The fact that our student body comprises over 170 different nationalities means that cultural awareness, another vitally important element of being a global citizen, is embedded in our students. But in Anthony’s opinion the ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, communication etc that are key to a person’s employability, (and which we need to try and embed in the curriculum rather than providing solely through extracurricular activities), really ought to be called ‘hard skills’ because doing that is quite a challenge.

A man who put the skills gained during his UCL education to excellent use in a very successful business career is Jat Sahota, the morning’s keynotes speaker, who is Head of Pharmacy at Sainsbury’s. An alumnus of the Biology Department, Jat is a shining example of Sainsbury’s ‘subject-agnostic’ stance, having worked as Head of Fruit, Head of Corporate Responsibility and Head of Sponsorship prior to his current role. Jat used his time to talk about the attributes Sainsbury’s looks for in applicants to its graduate programme (which had 5,500 applications last year for 20 places – one of which went to a UCL graduate).

Jat told the audience that Sainsbury’s looks for people with equally high IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence). The company values those who can demonstrate judgment, drive and influence, and applicants must have a 2:1 regardless of discipline.

I couldn’t help but think of the BBC TV series The Apprentice when Jat talked us through the rigorous selection process candidates undergo: they begin with an online assessment and then the few that pass this move on to verbal and numerical reasoning tests, a phone interview to check how articulate the applicant is, various exercises at an assessment centre including group challenges and individual presentations, before, finally, an interview with a Sainsbury’s board member. No pressure then.

In interviews, Jat said, graduates tend to focus too much on things they have achieved academically, but struggle to answer the classic “Can you give me an example of a time when you’ve had to work as part of a team?”-type questions.

This is where, institutionally, we need to focus our attention, and why the conference was themed as it was: for various reasons, not all students are able to engage in extracurricular activities, and it is our responsibility to give them the opportunity to develop leadership and team qualities (to name just two) as part of their degree programmes. The internationalisation of the curriculum agenda touches on this, and problem-based learning is one obvious avenue through which students can begin to gain the requisite skills. The Teaching and Learning Portal has a growing selection of case studies which showcase some of the efforts being made in this arena.

Understanding intercultural aspects of teaching and learning

The ever-charismatic Caroline Selai presented some interesting findings from a project she and a number of others are working on which aims to explore the strengths and challenges experienced by staff and students from different cultural backgrounds. A slide provided by Engineering's Marco Federighi outlining the very different way an Italian academic will interpret institutional guidelines compared with a Brit elicited a lot of laughter, but a more serious message lay at the heart of Caroline's presentation.

Together with Sushrut Jadhav, Caroline runs the Cultural Consultation Service (CCS), which aims to resolve misunderstandings that have possibly arisen due to the different cultural backgrounds of the people involved. Caroline talked about how easily this can happen, describing one of her own students from a few years ago who, having just got off the plane from Taiwan, was utterly flummoxed by the 'interview and then introduce your neighbour' icebreaker activity set on her first day at UCL. Caroline then talked about a colleague making a more successful effort to integrate international students by asking each class member to bring a national dish to a shared meal – a seemingly small thing but one which can go a long way towards making overseas students feel more comfortable talking about where they come from. You can download Caroline's presentation here.

Breakout presentations on employability in Economics and object-based learning

One of the most poignant presentations I saw during the breakout sessions was by Economics’ Cloda Jenkins. Having spent several years working in industry before taking up her current post as Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, Cloda is well aware of graduates’ shortcomings when it comes to job interviews. She pointed out that when interviewing someone who’s studied at UCL (or any prestigious institution), you assume that they know their theory. The interview process is about testing whether they are able to apply this knowledge to real-life problems – which is why she never once took a UCL graduate through to second interview stage.

When Cloda started teaching here, she made it clear that she wanted to introduce this type of practical learning to her Regulation Economics course. She wanted to give students generic skills that would help them out in any career, as many don’t end up working as economists. “And it’s not just about getting them the job, it’s getting them through the job,” she added, emphasising the importance of understanding how to analyse data and knowing which economic model to apply to different scenarios.

Cloda surveyed her LinkedIn network on what they wish their graduate employees had been taught at university, and also asked her own students what they wanted to know but didn’t, then set about designing a module that attempted to address these issues and produce better economists. You can download Cloda's presentation to find out what she did, but suffice to say it was popular and went some way towards making UCL students more employable and ready for real-life challenges.

Next, Leonie Hannan presented some interesting research into students’ perceptions of object-based learning (OBL), which allows all departments to make use of UCL’s Museums and Collections in their teaching. She explained that incorporating OBL into a course can enhance student employability through teaching them to communicate, think abstractly, ask their own questions etc, and presented evidence showing that 87% of students believed their powers of observation were improved by OBL, while its capacity to boost communication and teamwork skills was acknowledged by 77% and 69% respectively. Students appreciated OBL’s interactivity and the fact that it inspired them to do more independent learning. Download Leonie’s presentation if you’re interested in finding out more.

2013 Horizons Report

Carmel McNaught, CALT’s Visiting Professor, chaired the last session I attended. Her panel – Fiona Strawbridge, Head of E-Learning Environments (ELE), Helen Chatterjee, Senior Lecturer in Biology and Deputy Director of Museums, and Nick Grindle, Senior Teaching Fellow in CALT – were tasked with discussing the 2013 Horizons Report, and were each given six strictly timed minutes in which to do so.

Fiona identified six trends from the report that are relevant to UCL, but focused mostly on MOOCs, a subject that Anthony Smith is very interested in. Fiona talked through the pros of UCL offering MOOCs (public good, brand awareness, improving application numbers if people liked taster courses, keeping up with the Joneses) as well as the cons (cost, high drop-out rates, the fact that students paying £9,000 a year to study here might not think it’s very fair that others can be educated by UCL free of charge). On the whole, though, she was in favour, arguing that MOOCs would be a key way of proving that UCL is a global leader in education, as well as research.

Helen spent her six minutes talking about digital assets in relation to Museums and Collections. She pointed out that UCL is home to one of the best 3D laser scanners in the world, and that we now need to think about how best to integrate the fruits of this into our teaching.

Finally, Nick told us that ‘informal learning experiences’ is the only Horizons trend that specifically mentions employability – perhaps an indication that the report isn’t keeping up with the times? One of the strongest messages that Nick took from the report was that the role of educators is changing, so people are becoming facilitators of learning rather than ‘teachers’, a word only mentioned seven times in the report, twice in a negative context.

Final thoughts

Anthony Smith’s closing remarks echoed Jat Sahota’s ‘discipline-agnostic’ comments: he pointed out that only around a quarter of employers look for people who have done particular degrees. Academics are fiercely loyal to their disciplines but they shouldn’t let this overshadow the learning experience they give their students, because it’s not what employers really care about – being able to work and communicate effectively and think critically and laterally are the most desired skills. The importance of emotional intelligence, said Anthony, had resonated throughout the day.

No, we don’t need an ‘Emotional Intelligence 101’ course, but it’s our duty to make sure that the student experience in its entirety creates graduates who are truly global citizens, bursting with skills and knowledge, ready to tackle the job market head on.

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Page last modified on 24 apr 13 15:41

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