Even before 2020, there was growing uncertainty over young people’s career prospects. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. New research by the Edge Foundation (Edge) looks at drivers of career success in higher education (HE) graduates.

We focused on three important pieces of research at our symposium on the issue of employability in higher education which was chaired by Professor Colin Riordan.  An Edge Trustee and President and Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, Professor Riordan was also Vice-Chancellor at Essex when the Essex-based Edge Hotel School was first proposed.

The research highlighted how innovative HE providers in the UK are approaching graduate employability. While our aim was to broaden the discussion around work-readiness, some clear themes emerged. We found that what it means to be ‘work-ready’ is constantly evolving.

In this context, employability combines knowledge with practical skills. We found that these are best developed through continuous application of theory in practice. This can be through project-based, work-integrated learning, an industry-engaged HE curriculum, and by creating a workplace-like atmosphere.

Edge Hotel School

Dr Andrea Laczik, Edge’s Head of Research, presented findings reflecting on the partnership between Essex and the Edge Foundation at the Edge Hotel School. She shared the findings of an evaluation of the Edge Hotel School (EHS) by Dr Nathalie Huegler and Dr Natasha Kersh from University College London.

EHS is a fully operational four-star hotel. It allows students to train in events and hospitality management, while learning strategic, managerial and professional skills. The research’s aim was to model how HE institutions might better engage industry in the delivery of vocational training.

EHS heavily invests in its industry partners. Students continuously embed academic knowledge through rotation in various hotel departments and via industry work placements. Applying what they’ve learned over a two, three or four-year degree, students cultivate a sense of professionalism alongside their academic studies. This strategic, operational and managerial focus makes fresh graduates ‘industry-ready’.

Applied to other industry sectors, EHS’s approach could greatly support students’ employability, while maintaining a clear HE-focus. The study also offers important lessons for balancing the needs and involvement of key stakeholders, ie industry partners, university personnel, customers (in this case, hotel guests) and students themselves.

National Software Academy

I spoke at the symposium about research on Cardiff University’s National Software Academy (NSA). Founded in 2015, the NSA was created to tackle the skills shortage in Newport, a deprived area of Wales.

The NSA model has greatly improved graduate employability. Local employer networking, relevant work placements, guest lectures and industrial tutors are all key to their model. Every semester, students apply what they have learned in authentic client-facing projects. Through these, students develop the team-working and professional communication skills they need for the workplace. By following a clear employability skills framework, students show high self-awareness of how their knowledge and skills are developing.

Crucially, NSA classroom sessions involve a continuous cycle of theory and practice, including project-based learning. The workplace-like environment also cultivates work-readiness. Daily briefings, communal work areas and integration of workplace technologies mean the NSA is more like an office than a university department.

What’s more, the relationship between staff, students and industry partners is uniquely non-hierarchical. Staff engage with industry stakeholders on and off campus. Meanwhile, students are treated as professionals. To help shape the curriculum, they’re actively encouraged to contribute what they’ve learned during their work placements.

Sustainable Degree Apprenticeships

 Professor Daryll Bravenboer, Director of Apprenticeships at Middlesex University,  shared an important piece of research exploring sustainable degree apprenticeships in the nursing, digital and engineering sectors. The study’s findings – which tackle systemic barriers to sustainable apprenticeship delivery – have broad applications for all types of degree-level apprenticeships.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that the most effective apprenticeship providers closely partnered industry and academic staff. However, it also revealed the importance of bringing in expertise of work-integrated learning delivery. This not only ensured that employer’s needs were met, but that apprentices gained the relevant industry know-how and other broader, employability skills. HE institutions, meanwhile, played an important role in integrating academic study.

A key recommendation from the research was to reposition how degree apprenticeships are perceived. They should be sold as distinctive, high-quality offerings – not ‘lesser’ alternatives to traditional degrees. Young people also need support in identifying career paths and links between lower-level and higher-level apprenticeships. This is especially important for boosting productivity and social mobility in underrepresented groups. Some of these findings are already being implemented at policy level.

Lessons for developing sustainable careers

As pressure grows on HE to support transitions into sustainable employment, what can we learn from these innovative models?

Firstly, that effective partnership between employers, students and providers is vital for shaping the necessary prerequisite knowledge and supporting employability skills that graduates need to thrive.

Secondly, that applied learning in ‘safe’ workplace-style environments (with ongoing employer support) is one good way of ensuring that graduates are work-ready. It’s vital that students can apply the theory they have learned in context.

In today’s uncertain world, students and employers are demanding new approaches. If the research has taught us anything, it’s that these kinds of models are not a matter of ‘if’ – they’re a matter of ‘when’.

The Edge Foundation is an independent education charity dedicated to transforming the way young people develop the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century.