Student employability: Treating students as partners

I have recently been involved in developing and testing a student 'employability' programme. Like any other journey, this one evolved as we progressed. Because we took a design approach to building this, goalposts have shifted several times. We started building this with a very specific institutional context in mind and then looked to generalise it, making it available for other institutions in dramatically different contexts.

The whole exercise has been one of exploration, conversations and iterations, just as we expected this to be. We engaged with a range of people, inside the institutions as well as outside, including a lot of business leaders, recruiters and learning professionals. And, of course, with a number of students, who joined the courses we delivered. We faced the usual challenges - of fitting things around the calendar, resourcing and compliance roadblocks, the usual bureaucratic powerplays etc. - and those highlighted, as expected, the issues of institutional culture, leadership styles and staff and student engagement. 

But, on reflection, the biggest question that came out of this exercise is something that confronted our foundational assumption: That the students are interested in finding good jobs and would automatically engage if a preparatory programme is offered to them towards this end. We did - and are continuing to do - test the assumptions about delivery format (used both online and hybrid), costs (free, institution pays and students bearing some costs) and content (specific content such as CV writing versus more intentional intervention such as exploring Growth Mindset). But we take for granted the fact that the students will be interested and engaged if such preparation is offered free of cost, in a flexible format and with relevant content.

With the limited data we have, the relevance question has a direct answer. Students usually engage with here-and-now 'how to do' sessions - CV, interviews, networking - better than more open-ended preparatory programmes. There is always a temptation of an easy conclusion here: A student, like any other person, wants simple, tangible solutions to their problems. However, for us, that conclusion poses a big challenge. There is no easy way to prepare the students for complex changes that are already underway at the workplaces. Besides, we did not want to kid ourselves into believing that we could 'teach' critical thinking or growth mindset in any two-hour workshop.

But, beyond the easy answers, lay the foundational question: What if the key assumption, that the students are really looking for professional jobs and are ready to sacrifice extra hours in preparing for those, is wrong? Or, at least that it does not apply outside the limited context of the professional schools, where most of the students are motivated by some kind of professional goal? We were dealing with undergraduate international students and the question, we recognised, must be asked in that specific setting.

As first generation migrants in a new country, the students we were dealing with had a wide range of concerns: Settling down, finding part time jobs, finding a more secure visa, engaging within their respective ethnic networks for support system and to complete their course of study quickly to start earning. Whether they were prepared for professional jobs with the right kind of capabilities is a priority for our institution but may not feature as a top priority for the students concerned.

These understandings emerged as we engaged closely with the students. Our initial attempts were focused on building institutional capacity - hiring new people, creating designated spaces and communicating the messages through in-campus displays and social media. After the initial observations, we started thinking more deeply about the broader educational setting - from the 'sales' messages to student advisory to what happens in the classroom - and a strategy to inspire students to look beyond the immediate concerns and into a professional future.

However, as I write this, we know that such transformation is both difficult to achieve and only have limited impact. They are difficult because the institutions have a lot less leverage on the dynamics of international student acquisition than we would like to think: That market is a vast machine which defines the priorities, sorts out the candidates and allows individual institutions only a minor role in defining the priorities of the students. 

Therefore, as we went back to the drawing boards, our plans are now to turn the table to make the whole employability intervention a student-led initiative. There are three specific things that we are now focused on: 

First, we are giving up control, at least partially, to a student-led body, and directing our capacity-building efforts towards that. We are hoping that the student voice will define what's needed and not needed, and when.

Second, we are going to 'open' the programme design so that the students can engage with specific components at a time of their choosing, rather than trying to complete a certification programme. We are going to change the credentialling system to recognise student achievement in this new setting.

Third, our efforts and budgets in this new setting will go in deeper engagement through mentoring of the students, led by specially trained seniors to help others. 

So, overall, a total change of course in the cards. But, this is exciting - as we are finally getting educated ourselves and bringing the students back into the heart of all we do.

















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