Are universities doing enough to prepare students for the future?

WITH most employers now recognising that many of the jobs on offer today will have vanished in the next 10 years, are our universities doing enough to meet the education challenges of the future? LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Co-Leader, Caroline Campbell, writes here about how her project shines a light on the ‘breadth vs depth of knowledge’ education debate.

Responding to a question about the University of Leeds offer for undergraduates and in particular Broadening as part of the Leeds Curriculum, one of the employers, who remained anonymous for our LITE research project, said:

In about 10-15 years’ time, one third of the jobs that exist currently will not exist and will be replaced by another set of jobs … so the breadth and capability to develop a skills resource that can work in areas where as of yet we don’t know will exist … is really important.

This view is very much captured in Mathers’ image of the T-shaped student (see image above): a graduate who has a depth of learning and understands how their discipline relates to other knowledge areas, perhaps enabling them to work across disciplinary boundaries.

They are also aware of the skills and attributes that they have developed through their degree programme and their life experiences.

BLOG author: Caroline Campbell.

BLOG author: Caroline Campbell.

Valuing choice

But are students aware of these employer expectations?

Our Student Researchers, Akeisha Brown, Chandni Pandya and Robert Irnazarow, were able to obtain deep insights into student perspectives on broadening and in particular what they saw as the value of taking language modules.

READ Caroline and Karen’s Final LITE Project report.

From the data we defined three core categories: Choice, Identity and Learning Experience.

Students who are able to take advantage of Broadening as part of the Leeds Curriculum, really value having a degree of choice.

It was really encouraging to learn from the interviews with students that many of them selected Leeds on the basis of the opportunities afforded by Broadening and the breadth of ‘Discovery’ modules available.

One student interviewee, again anonymous for research purposes, commented:

You’re giving more scope for people to start designing their own degrees, which fundamentally is what most people would really want to do.

Employer view

Meanwhile Dr Karen Llewellyn and I focussed on exploring the employer perspective.

This was a rare opportunity to interview 15 employers and it proved incredibly valuable.

We found that employers, as with students, value Broadening as inherently beneficial in pursuit of a rounded graduate.

the leeds curriculum

INFOGRAPHIC: The Leeds Curriculum.

They also identified co-curricular activities such as study abroad, industry work placements and volunteering as important opportunities for students.

Very few employers, however, were able to articulate the skills and attributes of competence in another language and how these might contribute to an organisation.

This highlights the need to better articulate the benefits for both employers and our students.

Insight

Building on our LITE project, colleagues who teach languages across the higher education sector in a context of Broadening, often referred to as Institution-Wide Language Provision, are invited to a workshop in Leeds on 17 December.

It will focus on deepening our collective understanding of the skills and graduate attributes that are developed through taking language modules.

This will inform the development of a resource that will make these skills explicit.

I now look forward to sharing ideas.

I hope that colleagues across the sector – those who teach languages, personal tutors, staff with responsibility for enhancing employability – will find this insight valuable and will use it to assist students in articulating the transformative effect of learning language skills gaining greater intercultural understanding.

It will also inform employers of the added value beyond simply linguistic competence offered by employees who speak more than one language.

Our findings show that universities need to support and encourage students to reflect more deeply on their learning as part of their undergraduate experience.

And we need to make more explicit the benefits of curricular and extra-curricular opportunities that help demonstrate an individual’s social capital.

Identifying the hidden skills developed on our modules and articulating where the graduate attributes are developed in the institution’s graduate offer is an area that requires greater focus.

Students need to be aware of how their experience in the round has enhanced their employability and make sure they address the employer interview comment below:

Coming out of university with just a degree is not enough. Your CV is very, very important.