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UK sector must shape up on employability outcomes

In the wake of soon-to-arrive post-study work rights and the pressing need to demonstrate ROI on higher education, the UK sector must prioritise a strategic approach to embedding employability into university infrastructure and student experience.

"Employability is moving from marginal into you might say a defining role", said David Pilsbury of Coventry University

"Employability is the new arms race in international recruitment"

This was the message being repeated by university leaders, industry employers and indeed international students themselves at an event organised by UUK International.

Paul Marshall, pro-vice chancellor careers and enterprise at UEL, told delegates of the radical renovation of the entire curriculum that happened at UEL to ensure employability and skillsets of students was developed.

“We had an employability problem”, he shared, underlining that along with a cull of hundreds of staff, an entirely new curriculum now includes “mental wealth” modules and has been developed in consultation with industry.

Kate O’Hara, talent acquisition lead early careers at Dyson, was fascinating as she detailed the efforts of a major global employer in the STEM field to identify talent early on.

“Where are the universities at graduate recruitment conferences?”

She acknowledged that they seek “natural networkers” who are happy to seek out a solution for a problem among peers, spoke of a wish to partner better with the university sector, and shared information on the very international workforce they are cultivating.

O’Hara also spoke about the Dyson Institute – a radical new approach to engineering degree delivery offered by the company in partnership with the University of Warwick and its WMG division.

Undergraduates earn a salary while studying and work on live projects at Dyson while studying on a four-year program. “Any graduate gaining a 2:1 is offered a job,” shared O’Hara, revealing that most are on track for a first.

The first graduates of the degree program complete next summer.

She challenged universities to better engage: “where are the universities at graduate recruitment conferences?” she asked.

And David Pilsbury, deputy vice-chancellor (international development) at Coventry University, stressed the imperative positioning of the agenda that is required.

Employability “is moving from the marginal into a defining role” for universities, he said, sharing detail on Coventry’s Centre for Global Engagement and its commitment at its London campus to guarantee work experience.

“This was the most difficult thing I have ever done,” related Pilsbury, but he said further announcements would be forthcoming about Coventry’s commitment to work experience.

“We won’t get there [with this agenda] by building this out from the careers service,” he added.


A report with detailed recommendations on how the sector should consider and reposition employability was launched by UUKi at the event – universities minister Chris Skidmore also spoke about the wider agenda of the UK’s international education strategy and the new graduate route.

Brett Berquist, director international at the University of Auckland, delivered the opening keynote in which he shared details of research into post-study work outcomes in Australia and spoke more broadly on the critical role of post-study work in directing the cross-winds of global student demand.

Nearly one-quarter of the one million international students in the US are on the OPT, he reminded the audience, noting that unlike other countries, the US counts students on this Optical Practical Training route as part of their total student body.

“Employability is the new arms race in international recruitment,” he concluded; while one student panellist used their platform to compare, critically, the average investment into international student recruitment v employability initiatives.

When asked what they would say to Skidmore, attending later that day, the international student panel challenged the UK government to put effort into the infrastructure of the employment market – beyond simply making the PSW route available.

“Ensure that employers know that the visa process [to employ] an international student is not actually that tedious”, counselled Ian Wong of the NUS – reminding delegates of the multilingual and multicultural advantages they have.

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