Employability is an individual matter. It requires each student to embrace their professional development and to access the support and opportunities our universities provide. Unfortunately, many students leave it too late, assuming employability is a set of skills they can acquire at some point before they graduate.
However, academics and other staff responsible for employability know that its development requires steady, deeper, and ongoing engagement by the student. This journey will lead to their ability to reflect on their dispositions and capitals; the qualities that distinguish graduates as being capable, professional people.
Integrating employability into the curriculum
Finding ways to integrate employability within the curriculum is a good way to create deep, rich and lifechanging experiences. This can be achieved through authentic learning activities that engage students in both their subject and their personal and professional development.
Active learning approaches can be designed so that our students make a positive impact on the world around them as they learn, by allowing them to bring their ideas, knowledge and energy to actual current professional and societal challenges.
Following a significant investment in curriculum enhancement in 2019/20, we’ve taken an integrated curriculum approach to developing employability at Anglia Ruskin University. We developed an Active Curriculum Framework which incorporates 6 employability enhancement principles derived from Tomlinson’s 5 graduate capitals (2017) of human, social, cultural, psychological, and identity capital.
Together with the lens of ‘the whole student’, Tomlinson’s capitals convey the essential role of the student in developing their graduate identity, through the way they engage with and reflect upon the learning activities they undertake on their course.
Enter the Live Briefs
To support this we developed Live Brief modules, or equivalent professional experiences, at levels 4 and 5 for every student. This approach ensures that students engage with employability through real-world commissioned challenges set out by employers and other professional partners, based on actual situations they are dealing with in their current business context.
In this way, students address nuanced and sometimes dynamic situations by applying their imagination, research, knowledge and skills to find solutions and ideas for their professional partners.
External partners work with module leaders and one of our centrally located Academic Employability Consultants (AECs) from our Employability Services. The AECs are experienced academics who facilitate the collaborative design of suitable briefs, which are assessed student challenges in the form of authentic projects.
Live briefs are not unique to ARU. Some universities refer to them as live projects. What is remarkable is the wholesale curriculum change and the joined-up development of our professional service infrastructure, which has enabled us to support academics and employers to successfully roll out the model in ways that work for all disciplines.
Live Briefs in action
This year we introduced awards for Live Brief Module Leaders and learnt a lot from the statements submitted by the academics leading the assignments. The following are indicative of how our academics have run with the idea:
- Level 4 Illustration students worked with Friends of Jesus Green, Cambridge City Council and Better Leisure to design and illustrate flags and banners to celebrate the centenary of the Lido on Jesus Green in Cambridge. Having explored the history of the place, students reflected the many different aspects of the Lido and the community who use it in the flags flying in this prominent public space until the end of December 2023.
- Kate Hiseman from ARU’s Peterborough campus leads the module Environmental Challenge Project 2 for Level 4 students. In her collaboration with Natural England, Kate’s students were asked to investigate possible causes and remedies for some environmental issues affecting Castor Hanglands National Nature Reserve near Peterborough. Her students carried out a range of field work which involved collecting, monitoring, processing and interpreting data, and analysing the results. Acting as consultants, the students presented their analysis, findings and recommendations to Natural England, thereby contributing to their new Conservation Plan and future research.
- Shaun Aquilina leads a Level 4 module on Technical Skills on ARU’s BA Musical Theatre course. In this Live Brief, Shaun collaborated with charity organisation Children with Cancer UK who requested a student choir that could support a smaller choir of young children being treated for, or who had successfully beaten, cancer. Working with a West End conductor, the students performed alongside the children to an audience of 2,000 guests at the charity’s high-profile annual fundraising gala evening at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel. The experience was noted by Shaun as making a positive impact on his students’ professional identity and increased their confidence in both their rehearsal process and performance skills. Based on their Live Brief experience, the student choir now acts as a performance group for ARU events.
In 2022/23, 96 different Live Briefs like these ran in modules across all five ARU faculties, supported by 101 professional partners and benefiting 5,989 students.
All-round engagement with an active curriculum
ARU’s investment in our Live Brief strategy has been considerable. It ensures that students relate the knowledge and skills they are developing to real-world problems. This not only improves engagement with employability, it also reshapes staff and student engagement with the active curriculum itself.
Now two years into our Live Brief approach, our development focus is paying more attention to the course as a whole and how the Live Brief experience flows and feeds into other modules. No longer is employability perceived to be set apart from the curriculum, it is understood as being integral to it, with Live Briefs being a beacon for our graduate capitals approach.
 Tomlinson, M. (2017), “Forms of graduate capital and their relationship to graduate employability”, Education + Training, Vol. 59 No. 4, pp. 338-352. https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-05-2016-0090