The theme of the Pre-Conference Event was employability and transferability in EAP and ESP. It was a joint event with BALEAP – the global forum for EAP practitioners. Thinking about this topic from a needs analysis point of view, I tried to investigate from different angles how institutions of higher education are dealing with this issue. My conclusion was that they they are trying to deal with it, but there is a large amount of confusion, especially with regard to professional and academic genres. One example I mentioned – and so did others – was when students are asked to write a report for their manager – a professional genre – but are required to give references – typical of academic genres.
I started the talk by discussing for a few minutes the purpose of higher education (see for example, Collini, 2012). Is it to prepare students for the world of work so they can contribute to increasing the wealth of the country? Or is it to give the students a general education – valuable in itself – to make them valuable members of society? Whatever the theoretical answer to the question is, most of the stakeholders involved do rate employability highly.
What stakeholders think.
A quick Google search provides the following from 3 random universities’ websites:
“Producing graduates who are highly employable is a central focus of City University London”.
“Middlesex University has an ambitious vision to ensure that all of our graduates are employable and successfully employed”.
“Durham University is reconfirmed as a World Top-100 University and has again been ranked among the world’s top universities for the employability of its graduates, according to today’s prestigious 2014/15 QS World University Rankings”.
A recent letter to TES (Letters, 14, October 2011) from Liam Burns the then president of the the National Union of Students points out that:
“We have really hard evidence to show that students are fairly clear about why they want to go to university – and for the vast majority, it is about getting a better job and having a successful career.”
So higher education institutions in UK and UK students clearly think that the issue of employability is important.
Several studies of employers (for example: AAGE, 2011; Archer & Davison, 2008; CBI, 2011; Docherty & Fernandez, 2014; Hart, 2010; Lowden, Hall, Elliot, & Lewin, 2011) report inadequate preparation of recruits and that employers would welcome a “more holistic approach to demonstrating the workreadiness of graduate and post-graduate recruits” (Docherty & Fernandez, 2014, p. 7). It is not specific subject skills that recruits lack but more general work related skills such as communication and ICT. The top 10 most important skills and capabilities when recruiting new graduates are (Archer & Davison, 2008, p. 7):
- Communication skills
- Team-working skills
- Intellectual ability
- Planning & organisational skills
- Literacy (good writing skills)
- Numeracy (good with numbers)
- Analysis & decision-making skills
Furthermore, in the UK, the QAA require that holders of bachelor’s degrees with honours will have:
the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment requiring:
- the exercise of initiative and personal responsibility
- decision-making in complex and unpredictable contexts
- the learning ability needed to undertake appropriate further training of a professional or equivalent nature.
So there does seem to be a general view across a range of stakeholders that employability is something that institutions of HE should be concerned with.
What institutions do.
I then looked at two large surveys of what actually happens in institutions from the point of view of students.
1. Gillett & Hammond (2008, 2009, 2011) investigated the types of assessment used across faculties and schools at one UK university. They found a wide range of assessment types and classified them into 22 categories in 5 broad strands, one of which was the work-place:
- Learner participation [e.g. Peer assessment; Self-set element]
- Representation of learning [e.g. Oral; Diagram/Pictorial]
- Bloom’s taxonomy [e.g. Analytic; Evaluative; Theory]
- Learner interaction [e.g. Group element; Role play]
- Developmental [e.g. Reflective; Process/Periodic]
- The work-place [e.g. Practice focus; Case study]
The work-place category was divided into two and practice-focus was the largest. In fact it was largest of all the 22. The bottom diagrams below shows that 46% of all schools in the institution had some kind of work-related assessment.
A distinction needs to be made, though, between the kind of writing that students might be expected to do in the workplace (professional genres) and the work-related writing they do as part of their course (academic genres). Nesi & Gardner (2012, p. 171) quote Dannels (2000) and Wardle (2009) on this. Case Studies are almost certainly only found in academic institutions whereas work with a practice focus could be found in both.
2. In the BAWE study (Nesi & Gardner, 2012), student written work was was classified according to one of the the five Primary Purposes for writing at university:
- Demonstrating Knowledge and Understanding
- Developing Powers of Independent Reasoning
- Building Research Skills
- Preparing for Professional Practice
- Writing for Oneself and Others
Again, they found employability was important with the Preparing for Professional Practice (PPP) category. This category is divided into Case Studies, Design Specifications, Problem Questions and Proposals and all of them are well-represented in the corpus.Again, out of the 4 genres that make up the PPP purpose, case-studies are probably only used in their institution.
Another type of writing identfied by both Gillett & Hammond (2008) and Nesi and Gardner (2012) – and certainly common in many of the vocational degree programmes I have been involved with recently – is Reflective Writing (See Gibbs, 1988; Kolb, 1884). This is a type of writing that tries to help students make a connection between the theories they are learning and the world of work. It is particularly important for mature students who have substantial work experience. Gillett & Hammond (2008) put reflective writing in the Developmental strand.
Whereas Nesi Gardner (2012) include it in the Event/Narrative Recount genre in the Writing for Oneself and Others category.
Furthermore, they found that “the majority of narrative (event) recounts in the corpus review and reflect on the writer’s personal experience during an academic or workplace activity” (Nesi & Gardner, 2012, p.222) and that “many of the narratives of personal experience in the corpus relate to a real or simulated work experience” (p. 223). So although, reflective writing is not categorised as PPP, it is clearly understood to be be relevant in a range of subjects.
It seems, therefore, that whatever we think philosophically about the purposes of higher education, most of the relevant stakeholder (employers, students etc) do think that one function of universities is to prepare students for employment. Institutions are trying but there is some confusion. Employers think they want students to have better general knowledge and skills.
Communication skills are necessary and universities are trying but there is some confusion among students and lecturers regarding the kinds of genres needed in the workplace as opposed to those required for learning.
This is difficult for ESP/EAP as any needs analysis that is carried out in an academic institution may not reflect the needs of the workplace. Furthermore any needs analysis carried out in the workplace may not be useful in the institution.
Archer, W. & Davison, J. (2008). Graduate employability: What do employers think and want? London: The Council for Industry and Higher Education.
Australian Association of Graduate Employers (AAGE). (2011). 2011 AAGE employer survey. Sydney, Australia: AAGE.
Collini, S. (2012). What are universities for? London: Penguin Books
Confederation of British Industry (CBI). (2011). Building for growth: Business priorities for education and skills – Education and skills survey 2011. London: CBI.
Dannels, D. (2000). Learning to be professional: Technical classroom discourse, practice, and professional identity construction. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 14(1), 5-37.
Career portfolios and the labour market for graduates and postgraduates in the UK. London: National Centre for Universities and Business.
Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. London: Further Education Unit.
Gillett, A. J. & Hammond, A. C. (2008). Preparing for assessment in foundation programmes. InForm, 2, 3-4.
Gillett, A. J. & Hammond, A. C. (2009). Mapping the maze of assessment: An investigation into practice. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10, 120-137.
Gillett, A. J. & Hammond, A. C. (2011). Pre-Master’s course design: What can we learn from assessment? In S. Etherington (Ed.), English for specific academic purposes (pp. 95-101). Reading: Garnet Education.
Hart. (2010). Raising the bar: Employers’ views on college learning in the wake of the economic downturn. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, USA.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Lowden, K., Hall, S., Elliot, D. & Lewin, J. (2011). Employers’ perceptions of the employability skills of new graduates. Glasgow: University of Glasgow SCRE Centre and Edge Foundation.
Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wardle, E. (2009). “Mutt Genres” and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write the genres of the university? College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 765-89.