University ushers in employability double initiative

– ‘With a placement year’: students from all courses to be able to take a placement year in a field of their choice
– ‘York Futures’: first years to have online assessments and development days to encourage career consideration

Image: Arian Kriesch

The University of York Careers department has announced two new initiatives, in an effort to boost the employability of its students and graduates. The ‘with a placement year’ programme allows any student to include a year in the workplace within their degree, including, for the first time, those reading arts and humanities. ‘York Futures’, meanwhile, focuses on bringing first years into the careers structure with a summer term programme of online tests and ‘development days’. According to the Careers department, this initiative is the first of its kind at any Russell Group university.

These developments come as a response to comparatively poor employability figures for 2016, in which the University of York recorded results towards the bottom of the Russell Group for employment after six and nine months. On the 2017 league tables published by The University Guide, York ranks 20th in the country overall, but 39th for graduate prospects. However, studies that take the longer view tend to treat York more kindly – recent figures from the Department of Education that combine employment data with tax revenue three years after graduation rank York fourth.

The University hopes that these announcements will make students consider their future employment much earlier on in their time at university, and counter the narrative that when it comes to careers, ‘first year doesn’t matter’. ‘York Futures’ is currently in its pilot year – first year students who have applied to be part of this year’s York Award (about 700) will all go through the programme at the end of the summer term, before it is rolled out for everyone in the 2017/18 academic year.

The new programme involves students sitting numerical reasoning and situational judgement tests online, before taking part in ‘development days’ designed by an external specialist company (the identity of which is yet to be announced). Andrew Ferguson, Assistant Director for External Engagement at the careers department, said: “York Futures is to be designed alongside a range of employers and is intended to help students at the end of their first year acquire a sense of career direction for the remaining two years of their time at York; helping to ensure they don’t miss out on the wide range of personal development opportunities available to them.”

Students wishing to take up the option of the new placement year will have to find their own placements, but can utilise the ‘profiles and mentors’ system on the Careers website, which lists 2 000 alumni available for advice and support. The year will be assessed by the careers department on a pass/fail basis, through criteria and conditions such as keeping a journal of individual development. The programme will shortly be available to current second years through a new section of the careers website.

York is the fourth Russell Group university to unveil an initiative of this kind, after Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield. Ferguson commented: “a placement year is potentially valuable to all York students and this initiative provides encouragement, support and recognition to those who would like to take up an opportunity that interests them, regardless of the academic discipline they are studying.”

When asked about his hopes for the programmes, University of York registrar David Duncan said: “The evidence shows that those who undertake placements and other forms of work experience significantly increase their chances of being appointed to professional jobs after graduation, hence we intend to augment the number of opportunities for York students.

“The wider York Futures initiative is an innovative and ambitious programme which is closely attuned to the needs of top graduate recruiters; it will offer students a high quality programme which will help them to maximise their prospects in a competitive jobs market.”

In conjunction with these initiatives the University is also revamping the York Award – a personal development award that began in 1998. From 2017/18, the York Award will have three classifications: the standard York Award, open to all first years and postgraduate students; York Award Gold, open to all second years, and postgraduate students who completed their undergraduate degrees in York; and York Award Leaders. The last of these, currently in its pilot year, seeks to identify future leaders and comes complete with an intensive three day training programme alongside graduate recruiters.

Some have suggested that the renewed focus on employability comes in tandem with the adoption of the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF), part of the government’s new Higher Education Bill. The TEF aims to ‘ensure all students receive an excellent teaching experience’ and ‘build a culture where teaching has equal status with research’. It tests universities on a variety of metrics and criteria, one of which is employment data. Under the TEF, any future rises in tuition fees would be dependent on gaining certain rankings (listed as gold, silver and bronze).

YUSU Academic Officer Tamaki Laycock commented: “although the commercialisation of higher education is undeniable under the new HE Bill, I believe the movement towards better employability schemes reflects what students continue to tell us that they want.

“Survey after survey has shown that students want more from careers services and the university to support their careers aftergraduation. At YUSU we’re also committed to helping students gain and articulate skills and we’re looking forward to working with the university more on student employability.”

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