RGS-IBG Geography and Employability Event, 19 May 2016

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Due to marking season, it’s been a few days since I could sit down and write a blog about the fantastic ‘Geography and Employability’ event that was organised by the RGS-IBG (http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Research+and+Higher+Education/Research+and+Higher+Education+events.htm) for those that couldn’t make it.  I was hopeful that the day would provide some good tips for how to embed employability into degree schemes/extra-curricular activities for our undergraduates and postgraduates – and thankfully the event provided several of these.  I was also lucky enough to bump into the fantastic Prof. Fiona Tweed (@ProfFionaTweed) from Staffordshire University, who was invited to do a presentation at the event (more info to come later) and she kindly agreed to co-write the blog post with me.  So what follows is a collective summary of the event from both of us.

 

‘Geography is in good health!’

Led by Stephanie Wyse and Catherine Souch, we began with a very positive discussion about the popularity of geography in relation to uptake by GCSE/ A Level students in recent years (which was also picked up by the media – e.g. see http://geographical.co.uk/rgs/news/item/625-geography-student-numbers-increase and http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/13/the-guardian-view-on-geography-its-the-must-have-a-level).  Geography at degree level also typically does very well in NSS scores relating to student satisfaction and, according to evaluations (e.g. see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationpicturegalleries/9852535/Ten-recession-proof-degree-subjects.html?frame=2472759), seems to demonstrate a recession-proof strength in relation to employment figures post-graduation.

 

Key findings in recent employability studies

We then discussed the changing policy context for geography and employability – including the well-publicised white paper and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – and some recent findings in employability studies. We won’t list them all, but here are some key points:

  • Careers advice needs to be tailored to subject; career options introduced early in studies and reinforced throughout the course
  • Responsibility for improving employment outcomes needs to be shared between HE providers, employers and students – this should be a partnership (both Wakeham/Shadbolt 2016)
  • Many students/graduates are, from the employer’s perspective, unable to make themselves stand out from a crowd
  • Employability offerings by HE providers are considerable and diverse, but students are dissuaded by some offerings (e.g. certain sectors/recruitment channels), and take-up needs to be more strategically timed (early/throughout degree) and targeted by subject/course
  • Employers have relatively limited engagement with HE providers but messages conveyed by employers carry more weight for students (all 3 IEW/IFF Research/QAA 2016)

Of course, the workshop participants also recognised the issues with data capture strategies and, as outlined by the organisers, there is an urgent need for improved longitudinal data about graduate employment.  One of the key messages to come out of the later discussions was that, for geography in particular, routes after graduation often involve the individual becoming a ‘global citizen’ (e.g. by undertaking voluntary roles). Therefore, a significant proportion of geography graduates may not have chosen traditional graduate routes, linked to graduate salaries, which are the measure of success in the alumni capture methods.  Some other key factors affecting the outcomes post-degree are:

  • The potential disparity between student and employer views of ‘graduate preparedness’
  • The changing graduate labour market (regionally and nationally) and the changing nature of employment, alongside the processes by which graduates are matched with graduate jobs
  • The role of universities as intermediaries (before and after graduation): subject-based support, careers services, other interventions

After some discussions of graduate attributes more broadly, we moved on to how geographers specifically are more employable.  Answers from the room included: diversity of contact time (fieldwork, lectures, lab work, seminars) and diversity of assessment (exams, traditional essays, data visualisations, oral presentations, reflexive journals, etc); a breadth of transferable skills (alongside subject-specific skills); a holistic understanding of world issues, which draws on several disciplines; geography is an ethical subject – graduates therefore leave University as global citizens as well as graduates.

 

Developing employable geographers

The event then moved on to a series of presentations offering a range of different approaches by various institutions, which are focused on enhancing employability. We haven’t included everything – what follows is a summary of some of the key messages from each presentation.

‘Re-chartering our employability offering’ – Jonathan Potts (University of Portsmouth)

Jon outlined a series of actions that have been embedded into the geography schemes at Portsmouth as a result of a multi-faceted, applied approach (involving academic and non-academic staff).  Key parts to this plan include:

  • An employability working group, including academic staff, technical staff and students (to brainstorm and roll out strategies)
  • A professional advisory group (consisting of external organisations and alumni students)
  • Employability resources embedded in all units and at all levels of study, including:
  • Introducing new placement (sandwich) degrees for 2016-17
  • Introducing a new ‘Employability for Geographers’ unit at L6 (feedback from students suggests this is also desired at L5). Assessment includes a reflexive journal and a portfolio
  • A dedicated Moodle site (feedback from students did, however, suggest that this was not particularly useful – and so a more social media-based strategy is to be adopted)
  • Guest speakers in units – former students (again emphasising the importance of alumni) and professionals
  • Monopolise key research skills and research contacts of staff!

 

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Related to the final point, another important message – and problem – that was mentioned is that it is often not just the issue of trying to engage students to think about employability that presents barriers; sometimes staff are difficult to get on board.  Similarly, educating employers is also key – so involve them in such strategies wherever possible.

‘Employability day’, or, as they called it (and I really enjoyed!), The ‘Bath Spa Treatment’ – Becky Schaaf (Bath Spa University)

Becky introduced the presentation by explaining why they had introduced an employability day; namely to try and get students to think about what they want to do after their degree and figure out what values are important to them early on (at Level 4).  This was a non-compulsory day (although, as attendance was outlined as an issue, making the day compulsory is being considered).  Below are some of the activities included:

  • A reflective skills/values audit with paired discussions
  • Discussions around what is possible in their subject, and from students as individuals
  • Relatedly, making students think about the ‘you-shaped’ hole in employment opportunities; what is unique about them and how to sell this in applications and interviews
  • A creativity/enterprise activity involving being given data from a local council to develop an idea to improve the community – with a prize for the best idea. This activity encouraged students to use data in a creative way (and enables creativity to be seen as more than just art and design – including how to apply this to a professional environment) in order to solve problems. This idea was then mapped out onto a business canvas and pitched back to the group; another key skill
  • The feedback was very positive, with all participants saying they would recommend the event
  • Issues – this was not subject specific, so the presenters discussed the possibility of making this solely a geographical-based event

‘Alumni Networking Events’ – Kean Fan Lim (University of Nottingham)

Co-coordinated with the careers office, Kean outlined the alumni network events that University of Nottingham run for Geography. He mentioned how key the events team were for promoting such events (weekly bulletins), and that the Geography society were also involved in promotion.  The events are run as follows:

    • Informal setting, usually in a pub (and with a budget – for one drink on the house!)
    • 7-8 alumni students from different sectors and at different career stages are invited
    • Speed-dating set-up, with students moving round each visiting alumni
    • Informal setting meant that students felt relaxed, could talk honestly and openly about their experiences, and ask questions
    • Around 70 attendees at the last one, indicating a positive response

 

‘The Geography Undergraduate Research Assistantship Module – Fiona Tweed (Staffordshire University)

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Fiona outlined the introduction of a research assistantship module into geography degree schemes; this module originated as a research-engaged learning exercise. While it still operates as such, she emphasised the benefits of such a module as an employability tool– enabling students to gain valuable research assistant experience, to ‘demystify’ the research environment for them, and to make them stand out in an interview panel.  Fiona also noted the broader benefits for academics – such a process boosts research culture in a department and makes students feel more included.  A brief overview of the format is below:

  • The module is for Level 6 (3rd year) and totals 150 learning hours, which can be spread over one or two semesters
  • Assessment comprises an oral presentation and a reflective report, including a work diary
  • Projects are advertised and students apply for them, providing a CV and cover letter. Students’ skills and aptitudes were assessed against the requirements of the post, as they would be in an ordinary employment situation. Interviews then take place, should decisions not be made from the written process alone.

A more comprehensive outline can be found in:

 

The journal article (Tweed and Boast, 2011) also discusses how the module was evaluated – namely by two key measures: student performance and student/staff/client feedback.  Students generally perform very well, with upper second and first class marks gained for the module – and, most significantly, excellent research outputs are often produced.  Feedback contained a plethora of very positive responses from students relating to the depth of the knowledge in specialist subjects gained; the research, presentation and organisational skills that were enhanced; and their belief that the module had enhanced their employability.  Staff reported that they felt the assistantships allowed the reinvigoration of their research, plugged a gap in resources and acted as a spring-board for future grant applications.  Client feedback included in the article described the impactful student projects, the more effective consolidation of working relationships between academia and external clients, and enabling clients to conduct research where only limited resources are available.   Overall, the module has multiple benefits for multiple stakeholders.

 

‘Bristol Q-Step Degrees’ – Rich Harris (University of Bristol)

Rich began by highlighting that, generally, quantitative analysis aptitude is poor for social science students. Bristol Q-step is, he outlined is, ‘part of a £19.5 million initiative designed to promote a step-change in quantitative social science training in the UK. A set of three (B.Sc.) and four year (M.Sci.) degree programmes are offered, with a shared cross-disciplinary pathway designed to boost confidence in analysing, presenting and interpreting quantitative data, as well as promoting understanding of quantitative social science’.  Examples include BSc/MSci Geography with quantitative research methods – with the latter deliberately being tagged in the degree title to emphasise its presence.  The QAA statement for Geography, he stated, clearly emphasises the need for numeracy and numerical skills, for attention to spatial statistics and scale, and to being able to use a range of statistical data collection and analysis strategies.

Rich outlined that students are taught there is more to quantitative geography than ‘just numbers’; they are shown how to turn quantitative data into useable formats, to do creative things with it, and to communicate it effectively.  Importantly, this strategy is also very much about employability – Rich draw from this report http://www.niesr.ac.uk/publications/state-nation-review-evidence-supply-and-demand-quantitative-skills#.V0iGzWf2aUk which reviewed the evidence on current levels of demand for quantitative skills (QS) from employers the UK, and the extent to which this demand is matched by supply. This clearly showed an increase from 1997 to more recent years in the levels of which more advanced maths/stats skills are considered essential/important for candidates. Rich was not making a case for quantitative methods to be the only relevant aspect of a degree; rather he was highlighting the need to reinvigorate them in geography degree schemes, keeping the view of the holistic discipline that covers several methodological bases in mind.

 

Finally

The event finished with a series of very short, sharp presentations on what the RGS-IBG offers to complement such strategies in degree schemes. These include:

 

The appendix of the handout also contained an executive summary of the fabulous project undertaken by Dr Anna Laing (@AnnaFLaing) while she was a Research Associate at Northumbria University, entitled ‘Embedding Employability in the Geography Department’.  This included several tips for departments to research the effectiveness of their employability strategies, alongside some important findings.  Contact Anna for more information.

Overall, the event was a great way to share ideas and best practice, alongside prompting some really positive discussions about why we all think Geography is such a great subject to study and teach. It was thoroughly enjoyable and we highly recommend similar events.

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