Future Ready Graduates – Special Interest Group Workshop
TERNZ Conference, 30 November 2016
The University of Otago, Dunedin

Employability, graduate profile attributes, work-ready, transferable skills, capabilities… If you’re working in the tertiary sector, chances are, your organisation is looking at ways to develop these skills in its graduates. However, in tertiary institutions that are traditionally focused on teaching disciplinary knowledge, how do we teach employability skills? How do we make students work-ready? More importantly, how do we prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet? At the 2016 Tertiary Education Research in New Zealand conference, Professor Susan Geertshuis (University of Auckland), Dr Rob Wass (University of Otago) and Narissa Lewis (University of Auckland) facilitated a special interest group workshop to answer these key questions.

Participants identified employability capabilities and their importance from multiple perspectives and they considered ways to embed capabilities in the curriculum. The workshop was attended by approximately 35 teaching and academic development staff from tertiary organisations across New Zealand and Australia, including the University of Otago, University of Auckland, University of Canterbury, Charles Sturt University and Massey University. The workshop gave participants an opportunity to:

  • develop their views on the standard and scope of employability capabilities graduates need;
  • consider alternative means of teaching and assessing for employability;
  • share good practices; and
  • reflect on their own courses in terms of employability capability development.

The workshop began with a brief introduction to the Embedding Employability in the Curriculum project. As a national project, it aims to identify exemplar practices that are distinct to the NZ tertiary sector.

In groups of 3 to 5, participants then considered employability capabilities from multiple perspectives. Participants assumed the role of Vice Chancellor, Parent, Student, Lecturer and Prime Minister and made the case as to why their capabilities were most important. Participants drew and labelled their ‘future-ready graduate’ who in the end, possessed much of the same capabilities. To give you an example, the future-ready graduate aptly named ‘Adaptable Annie’ represented someone who is adaptable, open to new ideas, situations and perspectives. Annie was also a ‘balanced babe’ representing a graduate who has a good balance of practical and theoretical skills.

In addition to critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills, participants stressed the importance of multi-literacy skills – future-ready graduates need to be literate in reading, writing, numeracy and ICT. It emerged that students are generally literate in most areas, but they lack the ability to apply these skills in practical situations. How then do we encourage more authentic experiences in the curriculum? It appeared there were more questions than answers at this stage and there were more to come.

It also emerged that future-ready graduates should have high levels of EQ and IQ which tied nicely into the suggestion that future-ready graduates are culturally aware. Yes, it was agreed that future-ready graduates need to be aware of and sensitive to multi-cultures, though a couple of groups highlighted the importance of bi-cultural competency. As a country founded on Māori and Pakeha culture, how do we prepare graduates to thrive in the workplace, particularly in New Zealand where the majority of public organisations have elements of bi-cultural practices through the Treaty of Waitangi. Nevertheless, groups agreed that practices aimed at developing these capabilities should indeed be embedded and not treated as a tick box exercise.

Now that participants had a sense of future-ready graduates, they were given a set of 16 Capability Cards, here’s a sample below:

  • Respond to team dynamics and mobilise the power of teams
  • Manage oneself and be self-reliant
  • Able to put theories into practice
  • Understand ethical issues in the context of the field of study
  • Be intellectually engaged

Based on the earlier exercise, all capabilities could be considered important, however, in the exercise that followed, participants had to pick the six most important capabilities. Assuming their roles assigned earlier, participants selected the most important capabilities considering those that are required to transition students into the workforce and also those that will help students with their long-term success. The following capabilities emerged as common themes:

  • Define and analyse problems to arrive at effective solutions
  • Understand professional practice within the field of study
  • Locate, extract, synthesise and use information effectively
  • Communicate appropriately in various settings and modes
  • Be aware of and form opinions from diverse perspectives
  • Able to reflect on one’s actions and learning

Reverting back to their teaching and academic development roles, groups then ordered the capabilities in terms of their ease of development in advanced and research informed programmes on a scale of Easy to Almost Impossible. It was pleasing to see that most capabilities were considered ‘possible’ to develop which suggested that we know how to embed these into programmes however, it would require a considerable change to traditional teaching practices – changes that most universities are not prepared for. It then raised the question, how do we enact change? Embedding employability in the curriculum is indeed a significant change management initiative.

After the sorting exercise, groups were presented with scenarios prompting them to embed the capability they considered most impossible into an assessment, course or programme. A strong theme to emerge here was an emphasis on process over product. Examples included prompting students with reflective exercises to help them consider how and why they are completing a particular task and drawing on feedback and critique from peers and industry experts. It was agreed that authentic, project-based assessments lend themselves well to employability skill development.

In programme development scenarios, alignment across years and courses was highly emphasised. Although most degree programmes offer internship opportunities towards the end of degrees, formative development between years and courses was considered important to ensure internships are effective for students and employers. Industry engagement was also considered important at all levels of the programme. In summary piece-meal approaches to employability skill development were considered ineffective and the need for integrated and cohesive approaches was emphasised.

The workshop drew on the expertise of talented learning and teaching professionals who were familiar with the importance of employability skill development and how they might embed this in the curriculum. However, the workshop did highlight the difficult road ahead to changing traditional teaching practices.

Interested in running this workshop in your own organisation? Download our customisable workshop materials.