Lessons from the 2016 Olympics – About learning and employability
I turned on the television during a semi-finals and an Australian competitor was clearly going to make it into the finals. The commentator said, “At this point, it’s all academic.”
The word ‘academic’ was being used to mean ‘inconsequential, irrelevant, meaningless and not real-world.’ No one raised an eyebrow at this usage and no one disputed the comment.
No wonder universities are now stressing over our graduates’ career outcomes, or lack thereof. If we, as academics, have earned a reputation for irrelevance and if learning is perceived as existing in a vacuum without meaningful outcomes, then there is no wonder that employers are sceptical about hiring our graduates.
The Olympics are the pinnacle of athletic performance. For an athlete to qualify and then compete at the Olympic Games means that she/he is among the world’s best. The athlete’s achievements at the games matter.
Whether the outcomes are a personal best, a finals qualification, a medal and/or a world record, each of these achievements are highly prized and will be counted as the most important indicators on an athlete’s overall portfolio.
University is the Olympics of schooling. Students have qualified for university entrance based on their performance in secondary school and/or their accumulated experiences (as mature aged learners).
The first lesson we can learn from the Olympics is therefore to brand and celebrate university as the real-world pinnacle that it is.
We need to redefine the word ‘academic’ to mean robust, rigorous and relevant. When someone says, “It’s all academic” we want them to take note, because this means that someone knows what they’re talking about, has evidence to back their claims and that the outcomes are going to matter.
How do we make university relevant?
We include employability in every university’s strategic plan, deciding what goals, key actions and KPI’s we are going to lead from the university executive and embed throughout every faculty, school and professional office on campus. Employability needs to become a key university priority.
We need to provide practical professional development so that every staff person (academics and professional) knows what employability is, why it matters.
We need to keep students at the centre of everything we do as a university. As such, employability means that higher education alumni have developed the capacity to obtain and/or create work. Furthermore, employability means that institutions and employers have supported the student knowledge, skills, attributes, reflective disposition and identity that graduates need to succeed in the workforce.
There are other lessons that we can and need to take from the Olympic Games.
Lesson No. 2: Every athlete is going for gold and every graduate wants a great career.
Each and every athlete has put years of gruelling training and thousands of dollars into their sport. In the months leading up to the Olympic Games, athletes are training many hours every day, six days per week, week-in and week-out.
Every one of them wants to be on that medal podium and some have tears of disappointment even when they make it to the podium because it’s not their national anthem that is being sung.
At universities, it is not enough to gloat that a given university, or programs, exceeds the national employment outcomes percentage of 68% (percentage of university graduates who have full-time employment four-months after graduation).
Each and every one of our students register expecting to be hired in a relevant, fulfilling career upon graduation. We cannot be satisfied with our superstars (straight HDs) standing on the podium with their gold, silver and bronze careers and the rest of our graduates left wondering why they invested time and money into university. How do we action this lesson of supporting employment outcomes for all graduates?
There are two relevant sets of recommendations – the first set for universities and the second set for students. An athlete will only become a medallist if trained in an excellent facility with great coaches and a rigorous program. Likewise, superior graduate outcomes are achieved by universities with quality learning, teaching and overall student experience.
Furthermore, two athletes can devote the same number of hours to training and the first will arrive at the games fit and ready to perform, and the second tired and unprepared. The quality of their personal training regime matters as much, if not more than, the quantity. In addition, how university students manage their experience will determine their graduate employability.
First, advice for universities on how to support employment outcomes for every student:
Personalise the learning experience. Individually meet with students to learn and guide their career ambitions, early and often. Help them choose the degree, subjects and assessment options that will maximise their opportunities.
Know the career outcomes of your degree. Each degree, whether professional or generalist has a pattern of career outcomes. A high proportion of graduates are hired into a set of common jobs. We can learn these patterns through keeping in touch with our alumni and through online national data-sets. Knowing which jobs are common will allow us to ensure that at least some of the knowledge, skills and attributes the students are learning directly align with employment criteria.
Furthermore, at least some of the assessment tasks that we set for students can directly mirror responsibilities they will have in their jobs (i.e. brief reports rather than academic essays). Finally, if we know their likely job titles upon graduation, we can support their identity formation to ease their transition into the workforce.
Internships should not only be for the students with the highest grades. Australian employers are increasingly vocal that high grades do not equal good employees. They want well-rounded graduates who have extended themselves and have taken full-advantage of the many and varied experiential opportunities that university has to offer.
To quote an employer from our research – “I look for a resume that almost looks like they’ve been working for four years in addition to studying. They’ve been working part-time, volunteering or doing community work. I like to find people that look like they’ve been busy and have a full life, that they’re doing lots of things apart from just studying and sitting in their room.’
In fact, many employees told us that they remove graduates with straight HDs from their shortlists. When asked why, these employers told us that in their experience, most graduates who have straight HDs did nothing but study throughout university. These graduates emerge knowing only theory and not how to apply it. They have missed out opportunities to develop their communication skills, teamwork and leadership.
If we offer internships only to students with straight HDs we are reinforcing this cycle and sending a message to students that they should prioritise their academic experience to the exclusion of extra-curricular activities. Furthermore, we are putting all of our energy into the podium athletes and excluding the majority of athletes who have made it all of the way to Olympic equivalent in education – our university.
Now, the advice for students, just as an athlete has to carefully manage his/her training regime for the best outcomes, so too can she/he significantly increase chances of satisfying employment after graduation by carefully managing the university experience.
We need to send and frequently reinforce these three messages with our students:
1. Start Early
Prospective students need to start thinking about their careers before choosing a degree. Organise information interviews, form goals by learning about “dream jobs” and find out whether employers within these dreams will hire graduates from that particular degree.
Once enrolled at university, visit the Career Centre in your first semester, find out what services and supports that have on offer and take them up on these opportunities. Sign-up, show-up and actively participate. In each unit, consider the relevance to your desired career and choose your subjects and your assessment options in a goal-directed list for your career.
2. Personal Brand
Distinguish yourself by creating and sharing a personal brand. There are 418 athletes across 26 sports at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. There are more than one million enrolled students in Australia’s universities. You need to find a way to differentiate yourself to stand out from the pack.
You need to own your own story and know why YOU are a better hire than the rest of your graduating cohort. The audience watches the swimmers in lanes 3-5.
They cheer loudest for Bronte and Cate Campbell because their sisterhood story captures our imagination and hearts. How are you going to differentiate yourselves as university graduates?
3. Well-rounded experience
One of the ways of differentiating yourself is by participating in extra-curricular activities. Employers want well-rounded graduates. This means that you have gone beyond the books. You have volunteered and thus contributed and given back. You have played sport or music. You have joined student societies and you have been promoted to leadership positions.
Most important, you know why have participated in these activities and what you have gained. For example, you know that competing in sport makes you resilient and responsive to feedback, including corrections. You have learned what it means to be a team player and to help one another play to your strengths.
As much as possible, try to integrate your studies and your extra-curricular activities. For example, when assigned a report, ask if the content of that report can be something that will extend real benefit to your club.
The third and final lesson to universities from the Olympics is – Play to the judges.
No training club would intentionally get their athletes penalties and deductions by ignoring or playing to different rules. Why do universities fail to find out industry needs and expectations or stubbornly insist on teaching unaligned curriculum and assign assessment with no relevance?
My team’s research has found that there is worrisome dissonance between the perspectives and expectations of students, graduates, employers and universities.
We administered matched versions of questionnaires to the four groups. Through published research, we found 12 types of university activities/supports that have measurable impact on employability. We asked the four groups to tick against the activities that possibly answered the following questions:
Students – Which of these do you plan to do to improve your employability?
Graduates – Which of these did you do as students to improve your employability
Employers – Which of these make a difference in recruitment?
Universities – Which of these do you provide for students to improve their employability.
There were many points of dissonance. Two important ones were that –
The majority of students, graduates and employers ticked internships, work experience and placements. The university personnel (academics, leaders and career development professionals) did not. Why not? When followed-up through interviews, the university personnel said that they believe in the power of internships but that they are expensive and time-consuming to provide and they do not have the resources to make them happen.
Second, whereas students and graduates ticked part-time work and not extracurricular activities, employers and university personnel responded exactly opposite. When probed, employers said that they want well-rounded graduates. Employers and educators acknowledge that often students need to work to support themselves through university, but that when they spend too much time working, they do not have time for volunteering, sport, student societies or clubs.
In their experience, graduate employees make better contributors to their workplace when they have participated in these extracurricular activities. Employers explained that participation in extracurricular activities has become a recruitment criterion because these pursuits support graduates to develop three desirable super skills – communication, motivation/initiative and leadership.
Analysis of the employer transcripts revealed strong alignment in perspective.
Every employer used the term “well-rounded” multiple times. Are we, as universities, leaving room beyond the formal curriculum and assigned assessment to allow our graduates to emerge as well-rounded?
The top super skill employers are looking for is strong communication abilities. At the unit level, are we engaging students in activities, including assessment, that develop their capacities for workplace relevant written and verbal communication skills?
Employers are looking for graduates who show initiative, motivation and leadership.As universities, to what extent are we structuring and delivering our curriculum and assigning standardised assessment versus supporting and scaffolding opportunities for students to take the lead and practice creative thinking?
The best safeguard against traditional “academic” thinking and practice is to invite and involve the employers.
As members on curriculum committees
As guest speakers to lectures
As guest moderators of online discussions
As research partners
As assessment markers
In summary, there are three main lessons about learning and employability that universities can take from the Olympics:
Redefine the meaning of the term ”academic” to mean Robust, Rigorous, Relevant
Remember that every athlete is Going for Gold and every Graduate wants a Great Career
Play to the Judges, or, in other words, invite and involve the employers.