Thomas Ron and Chris Wall discuss how linking societies and academic departments can help students reach their full potential (Forum Viewpoint article, Summer 2016).
Thomas Ron will be delivering a workshop on ‘the holistic student’ at the York Learning & Teaching Conference 2016, ‘Value Added Graduates’, Tuesday 7 June. Places are still available to attend –Conference Programme –Booking Form.
Our employability landscape
At York, we spend considerable time and energy on the issue of graduate employability. That said, first year students regularly do not think about employability and it was remarkable that this year was the first one where they made up a significant proportion of Careers Fairs. Our experience as students tells us that there isn’t always consistency of approach from academic staff in dealing with employability: some are promoting it, talking about it, embedding it and making it part of the course experience, whilst others are relying on Careers and, as a result, on students making an early and proactive attempt to tackle the complicated employment and employability space. Furthermore, and as a result of a traditional academic approach, many of the skills learned through course interaction are academic in nature, focusing on solving problems or helping students embark on a research career, rather than looking at industrial work. This could put the University at a significant disadvantage: as students have become savvy about the value of an industrial placement, they’re more likely to make the decision not to apply or to put York as their first choice.
What employers are looking for
We all know that employers today are increasingly looking for ‘more than a degree’ and in some cases are no longer considering undergraduate attainment in and of itself. What this actually means is that they are looking for a rounded individual that has grasped the university experience, has undertaken a part-time job, been in or lead a club or a society, represented other students, or completed a placement. Employers want graduates who have got knowledge about a subject, but also skills and experience that they can apply to accomplishing different tasks and jobs. These skills include but are not limited to:
- Leadership and teamwork
- Effective communication
- Problem solving
- Commercial awareness
How Academic Societies build these skills
Academic societies provide a basis for these skills and much more. Students who engage in their academic society are often involved in organising events; this in itself requires students to exercise a range of skills. For example organising a speaker event for the committee will require liaising with other members of the committee to consider who they should book, budgeting for the event, engaging with external contacts, and so much more – all providing opportunities to develop skills outside the degree. Balancing all of this with their studies also demonstrates excellent time management. These skills are ones we do not always receive from traditional study or at least do not get the chance to apply pragmatically in a safe environment.
Involvement in an academic society also provides evidence that an individual is engaged beyond their degree and wants to learn more holistically and perhaps independently. The fact that they cover additional course material is also a benefit to the students who ultimately have chosen their degree because they enjoy it. Allowing them to explore areas which they enjoy continues their interest and encourages the independent learning culture we are looking to promote at York.
Examples where departments and societies have worked well together
It is notable that many departments that have ‘bucked the trend’ on employability tend to have a strong working relationship with their Academic Societies. One such example is the Law Society who have built very close links with senior lecturers in the Law School as well as a close association with their Employability Teaching Fellow. These links have allowed the Society to bring in leading Law firms to multiple events and those firms end up leaving with plenty of prospective interns. The connection has been there from the inception of the Law School and the Law Society and has allowed them to work with each other and maintain Law as a school that does well. Another good example is ShockSoc, who have been highly involved in helping students do independent lab work and promoting ideas within Electronics. This has helped students engage in collaborative work, a trait which is highly sought after with employers. Electronics helps this by fully subsidising membership in ShockSoc for all Electronics students. Therefore, as the club is free at the point of use at any point in time it has a large membership of Electronics students who make the club strong and help with the soft skills employers are looking for while the department can get on with the business of teaching.
Ideas for further links
- Departments and Academic Societies should work together more in order to derive the greatest mutual benefit and ensure they complement one another fully.
- The incentives and help that some departments provide should not be the exception, they should be the rule.
- Furthermore, these incentives should be provided with benchmarks for the society to meet, so that the investment has an obvious quantifiable return.
- Therefore, we would welcome working with departments to create a framework for providing incentives as well as ensuring societies keep up to their commitments.
Thomas Ron is the Academic Officer of YUSU for the academic year. He has long been an advocate for student engagement and has held positions in YUSU since 2013. He is particularly passionate about involving students in making changes to their course. He has piloted methods of involving students in all areas of university life and bringing academic societies into academic decision making. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Wall is the Activities Officer of YUSU for this and the last academic year. In his role he has had overall responsibility for societies and our charitable activities. He is particularly passionate for societies to develop into new roles and ways of providing for students. He can be contacted at email@example.com