Course professionalisation

Many more degrees need to be hooked into professional training, qualifications and accreditation, says Professor Zahir Irani

It’s a common feature of degree courses in specific disciplines – like accountancy – where there’s an established and structured route of professional qualifications through to practice, and we in the Brunel Business School have been offering students exemptions some in other subjects such as marketing. But why not more?

Students want a degree that’s a clear and tangible platform to a solid career. As far as possible that means picking up ‘assets’ that demonstrate relevant experience, capability and achievement – not just a 2.1 or even a first. The more important employability becomes, the greater the need to be able to deliver concrete and particular experiences beyond the standard qualification received by the many. Institutions need to consider the opportunities for professional programme content in more courses, moving well beyond the usual exemptions that are offered and into journalism, computer science and engineering and into newer areas like games design. A call for professional bodies to also rise to the challenge. 

The benefits to students in gaining professional accreditations and future exemptions are obvious for when they enter the jobs market. For universities it’s both a matter of improving the picture on employability and dealing with the threat of competition over the long-term. Despite the increasing emphasis on employability support in recent years there hasn’t yet been an accompanying improvement in the numbers of institutions beating the Destination of Leavers Survey benchmark. Employer attitudes towards graduates continue to be ambivalent according to the CBI, which keeps on arguing the case for more emphasis on soft skills in all levels of education. One survey among graduates last year found that only 34% went into full-time posts in their chosen career; 57% were earning £15,999 or less. 

If universities don’t take more of a lead in finding new ways to make graduates more appealing to employers, the danger is the devaluation of degrees over time in the eyes of both students and organisations. At the very least there’ll be more questioning of the return on graduate debt. Other, more flexible providers of training and development have the potential to plug straight into employer demands, making academic substance the minor component and the major all around creating model, high-potential employees. 

A particular barrier for HE in getting closer to the professions and professional education is recruitment. There’s a tension with the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the need for staff engaged in theoretical research, with a track record and ability to publish regularly in the leading academic journals. It’s already happening but there will need to more flexibility around offering teaching posts where research is either secondary or not part of the academic contract. 

Linked to this kind of ‘professionalisation’ of degrees is the need to be creative about providing the different ‘assets’ for students throughout their university career. At Brunel University London we trialled a Transition Week at the very end of the academic year in 2014, a programme of personal development for all students to prepare actively for their next year of challenges: a boot camp to prepare for placements, writing skills, using social media for networking – and most importantly, creating a dedicated moment in time for  students think and do something about their own development – not just grades, but where they are in terms of skills, how they want to grow their skills in the next year. A good response from staff and students means we’re able to build on Transition Week as a fixture on the University calendar and look at growing related activities around it. 

Professional exemptions aren’t necessarily the answer to delivering employability in themselves – but they’re going to be an increasingly important part of the mix, and that will mean closer links and relationships with professional bodies, both old and new, and making sure we can integrate, share thinking and bring in new expertise.

Professor Zahir Irani is Dean of the College for Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University London, www.brunel.ac.uk, @zahirirani1

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