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PDP, Research-Teaching Linkages, Graduate attributes and Employability

A wide variety of students enter HE in Scotland with a range of educational, work and social experiences. Some institutions have adopted specific measures to bridge the gap between prior experience and entry into HE, introducing students to the skills they will need in order to cope during their studies and encouraging them to plan for their exit. This career planning element is particularly significant for new students who have achieved advanced entry, as their exit point arrives more quickly than for those entering at level 1. In discussions with students on the Napier University Bridging Course, students in higher years were found to be valuable assets in helping the planning process.

Modified source: Personal Developing Planning in the first year

As part of the G21C Enhancement Theme, Vicky Gunn, Klaus Kafmann and Sheena Bell updated lessons from the Employability Enhancement Theme in two papers:

Emergent trends were identified as:

  • the changing economic environment
  • balancing educational purposes and pragmatic work-related outcomes
  • employer engagement
  • placements
  • postgraduate study, early career researcher development, and employability
  • the importance of student engagement and self-reflection
  • issues related to equality and diversity

The conclusions from an analysis of these trends were that institutions should:

  1. Identify academic champions.
  2. Explore forms of continuing professional development for academics.
  3. Grow partnerships between university careers officers, academics, employers and student bodies.
  4. Match 1-3 with the student body through student engagement processes in institutions.
  5. Encourage university equality and diversity officers to discuss the impact of legislation on placement experience.

All this material is supported by a highly detailed and quite complex diagram entitled The Intersecting Strands - managing the web of opportunities at university, which provides a flavour of the context in which attributes are acquired and developed. The diagram follows an interesting comparison with recent conceptual models of employability, which the authors refer to as being:

  1. The General Model
  2. The Research-orientated model (for an example of changes to research degrees see Shaping the 21st Century Research Degree)
  3. The Employability-orientated model
  4. Recent graduate model

James Moir contributed three papers for the G21C Enhancement Theme:

In First things first, Moir explores the connection between PDP and personalisation. Though aimed primarily at the first year, the author makes pertinent points for all stages. He suggests, for instance, that PDP has been introduced as a means of personalising learning, not simply because of qualitative improvements to the student's experience, but also because of concerns centring on retention and motivation generally.

Nevertheless, the 'will to learn' remains central to the curriculum, one building on an ontological approach to the curriculum; a curriculum that promotes qualities such as persistence, adaptation and the ability to thrive. Such an approach sits uneasily with any bureaucratised idea of graduate attributes. As Moir puts it, '...these narratives about personal reflection may not sit easily alongside the aim of recording the development of GAs (Graduate Attributes). The more we stress personalisation as a pedagogic tool, the more we open up learning beyond codified educational aims and outcomes and into a personalised and individualised world.

This may be potentially liberating for students in some respects but it occurs at a time when most universities have modernised their operations based upon modular schemes with descriptors that require the specification of learning outcomes that are linked to GAs. This increasing bureaucratisation of the learning process as a codified product is paradoxical when set aside the ways in which students are encouraged to engage with their curricula in a constructivist manner, and in particular through modes of e-learning that are personalised and customised.

Moir goes on to argue that PDPs are still subject to unresolved issues (such as accessibility and assessment) that make their practical implementation more difficult than any acceptance of the principle behind them. 'To some' he says, 'this process is arguably more about the legitimation of PDP and GAs as a means of showing their operation within an audit-driven and accountable culture.

If this were the case then this could lead to an instrumental approach to learning and may only bring about a superficial level of engagement rather than any meaningful one that can impact upon empowerment and engagement in the first year.  He is aware of the polemic nature of this argument and retreats from it, but for those of us engaged and deeply committed to the Enhancement Themes and the enhancement of teaching and learning generally in Higher Education, these are issues that must not be ducked in the rush for another 'new' initiative aimed at 'greater participation' or any other superficially laudable approach to teaching and learning.  Further reading and a view on the use and application of reflective diaries in summative assessment at the University of Glasgow.

Another of the publications from the G21C Enhancement Theme is entitled Enhancing research-teaching linkages as a way to improve the development of employability attributes. The author describes the background to making such linkages, showing how challenging this can be, but offers a model for academics and policymakers as a guide to action.

At the University of the Highlands and Islands, the Career Centre was developed in 2010 to ensure that all students, including those studying remotely, had access to appropriate careers services. Alongside the development of core services such as a website containing careers information and access to telephone and e-guidance, the Career Centre also seeks to support and develop face to face services delivered on-site in the UHI Academic Partner colleges. A core component of this work has been the development of a 'Career Coaching' network.

The network involved training eighteen members of staff from across the UHI Academic Partners in a career coaching methodology to enable them to provide careers services to students with the support of the Career Centre. Guidance staff were also trained in the coaching methodology and in this way staff have sought to ensure that all students have access to guidance and coaching and that these services are delivered in a consistent coherent way no matter how the services are accessed.

The coaching methodology fits the institutional approach to Graduates for the 21st Century agenda which has been to draw up a list of Graduate Attributes based around five Core Values: active, responsive and adaptable, reflective, confident and rigorous. Because the coaching methodology adopted by The Career Centre emphasises the resourcefulness of the client, focusing on the process of career decision making as a process done by the student (with support) not done to the student, the methodology actively supports the development of graduate attributes.

The GROW coaching model (Goals, Reality, Options, Will) helps a student to identify their own goals, their options, and their will to make things happen. Focusing on practical steps that the student takes (not the adviser) and including a follow up session to review the progress enables students to develop core skills and attributes through the process of career guidance itself, as well as through the activities the student undertakes as a result of accessing careers support.

Colleagues at The Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) have integrated PDP throughout their Rural Business Management degree programme using the PebblePad PDP package. The idea is to set up 'tags' in PebblePad for each of SAC's five identified graduate attributes, so that students can map their progress over time.

At the University of Stirling, Sports Studies students partake in a scheme designed to make them 'Graduates with Impact' through the Coach Development Programme established in partnership with the Active Stirling local authority. This initiative focuses on the need to provide students with work-based learning opportunities, employability skills and a knowledge transfer partnership in which students can apply their academic skills to add value to the local authority sport and leisure provision.

Prompted by G21C, the University of Edinburgh's Business School updated a previous employability overview to examine the undergraduate curriculum through the lens of the University's Graduate Attributes Framework. The feedback received provided a valuable resource of perceptions from staff, students and alumni, revealing a number of actions for the School and making clear the cumulative development of some attributes throughout the undergraduate curriculum. Further details, including the challenges raised by the survey undertaken for the project, as well as actions for the future, are inlcude in the case study,  Embedding Graduate Attributes in First Year Divinity.

As part of the G21C Enhancement Theme, the BA Childhood Studies Programme Team at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) used the graduate attributes materials provided by Careers Advisers from the Employability Link at UWS, to create a grid which identified opportunities for developing attributes & employability skills within each of the modules on the programme.

The team undertook a review of the BA Childhood Studies programme using the Employability Audit Tool developed by the Centre for Bioscience. The use of the Employability Matrix and the Audit Tool assisted the programme team to develop their programme. Subsequent use of the employability matrix also allowed students on the programme to identify how and where particular attributes & competencies were being developed.

The University of Dundee's MyPDP system and the Professionalism & Employability Toolkit (PET) are activities which have been supported in their ongoing development by the Graduates for the 21st Century Theme. Together with other significant University activities such as its new Graduate Skills Award (GSA), they form part of an interlinked approach to student support and staff development in the areas of graduate attributes and skills development.

The skills which are anticipated by the GSA are endorsed by the Confederation of British Industry and in turn, these form part of the PET curriculum development and audit tool in order that the skills and attributes that the university asks its students to be able to demonstrate, are actually embedded within their curricula.

The use of the tools as part of a cyclical process from staff to student and back to staff again has created a potentially powerful feedback loop from curriculum development through student experience and learning and back to curriculum revision and development once more.

At Queen Margaret University, the Working in the Media module was initially developed as a way of embedding employability through collaboration among academic staff, Student Services and the Centre for Academic Practice. The module combined ideas developed through the Employability and Assessment Enhancement Themes, but also drew on and contributed to activities relevant to the G21C Theme. A large part of the module focuses on a live client project. Working with real clients to provide practical solutions to real issues allows application of theory as well as developing and applying graduate attributes.

The module is structured to facilitate individual reflective practice as well as teamwork, and culminates in the creation of a media product (e.g. promotions videos, a working website, publicity material and plan) and recommendations to clients. In addition, the module promotes the use of ePortfolios as a tool to aid reflection. For more details, including the ways in which the module was used as a vehicle to raise the profile of graduate attributes. For employers' perspective on graduate attributes, see Sir Andrew Cubie's presentation Where students go: the employer perspective to the Enhancement Themes Conference of 2010 and Jacqui Hepburn presentation, The Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, Scotland.