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Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
Employable global graduates: The 'edge' that makes the difference

Troy Fuller and Glenda Scott
Edith Cowan University

In an increasingly competitive tertiary sector, ensuring that students are job-ready and employable is a necessity and a great opportunity. In recent years, employers have expressed concern that many graduates are unprepared for employment, and Edith Cowan University (ECU) has responded quickly and decisively to this challenge. The Business Edge program consists of four units across the three years of the undergraduate Bachelor of Business degree. In the program, the values of ECU and of the Faculty of Business and Law and the expected attributes of graduates are linked to the necessary skills identified by employers. In Business Edge, students complete activities in teams and individually, related to relevant and challenging business topics. A facilitative approach to learning is used to assist students to become more reflective learners. In semester one 2009, there will be 35 classes and over 800 students completing the program locally and on-line, as well as additional students offshore through partner institutions. As a result of the program, students have been successful in gaining employment to support their studies and similar success is expected from graduating students. Students' standards of work and levels of critical thinking have significantly improved. They have worked with local businesses to produce detailed, relevant and innovative documents which have been implemented immediately. A Business Edge student finished in the top four contestants in the recent W.A. Business Icon competition.


Introduction

The Roman god, Janus, is an unexpected link between the conference theme of "Teaching and Learning for Global Graduates" and the Edith Cowan University (ECU) Business Edge program which has been developed in the Faculty of Business and Law over the last two years. Janus' unique qualities provide guidance for those seeking to prepare undergraduate students for the workforce. Amongst other things, Janus was depicted with two heads looking in opposite directions indicating his ability to see both the future and the past. He was the patron of abstract and concrete beginnings, and of new historical ages and economical enterprises. He was used to symbolise change and transitions, such as the progression from the past to the future and from one vision to another, and the growing up of young people (Lindemans, 1999). The Business Edge program invokes the spirit of Janus in an innovative and relevant way to prepare students for transitions in their lives and to be effective global graduates.

This paper will explore the changing role and expectations of the tertiary sector in terms of preparing graduates for the workforce. In the first part of the paper, an overview of the factors and considerations which have led to the development of the Business Edge program is presented and in the second half, the program itself and deliverables to date are discussed. In the concluding sections, opportunities for program refinement and development and for research are presented.

Background

In recent years, business groups have raised concerns that many graduates of tertiary institutions, while well prepared for academic work, are not "job-ready" (Maiden and Kerr, 2006, p. 1). Similarly, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business Council of Australia noted that employers wanted staff with relevant skills and not just discipline-specific knowledge (Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, 2002). Positive attitudes, the ability to interact with others and willingness to self-reflect are essential: "Most importantly, businesses participating in the research placed a strong emphasis on the need for both entry-level and ongoing employees to exhibit a broad range of personal attributes" (Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, n.d., p. 3).

The role of universities

Traditionally, universities have focussed on imparting knowledge and the pursuit of scholarly research. This may be a suitable focus for some students who wish to move into an academic career but even these graduates will soon discover that they must also look outwards. The vocational education sector, in comparison, was historically seen as responsible for developing skills. There is now a blurring of the distinction between the functions and expectations of the different sectors. In the Faculty of Business and Law at ECU (hereafter referred to as "The Faculty"), knowledge and research are important, but these are only two components of a greater mix.

Students have chosen to study because they wish to initiate a change from their current state and to create a better future in which they have real choices about the paths they may follow. Like Janus, they are excited to look forward because they are mindful of what has gone before. Industry competition in a global world is fierce, and employers are demanding graduates who "fit", who can start work immediately and who can add value to business in the short and long term (Nankervis, Compton and Baird, 2005). The activities of universities must reflect these demands.

The tertiary landscape is changing. The often delicate, ongoing negotiations which exist between universities and stakeholders require all of Janus' skills and many more. Universities must contest their positions with confidence and credibility, always seeking to manage the challenges of funding, student numbers and service levels. Added to this are the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures:

Governments, funding organisations and employers encourage, cajole and require higher education institutions to give increased attention, and even prominence, in courses to developing skills that will make students more effective in the workplace when they graduate (Jenkins, 1995, p. 121).
As noted by Yorke (2006), many employers now assume without question that graduates will have the required academic skills. This is no longer a distinguishing factor between applicants for employment. There is, therefore, a need for a new "point of difference" for current and potential students to offer employers and the community and, in turn, for universities to offer students.

Job-readiness and employability

At this point, it is necessary to consider the terms "job-readiness" and "employability", as these inform the activities which need to occur as a result of the changing tertiary landscape.

Job-readiness can be considered as first layer of students' preparation for the workforce, linked to professional knowledge. As mentioned, however, the expectations of employers and students now extend beyond the provision of knowledge alone. Job-ready graduates may well be able to work in specialised roles: however, they will soon discover that there is more to business than just academic material.

The second layer of student preparation is employability. Yorke (2006) notes that employability relates to how readily students can secure suitable employment positions (in terms of ability to work, rather than just availability for work), as well as the level to which they have learnt from their experiences to date, and the outcomes they have achieved. The often intangible yet essential aspect of potential is also added to the blend. The focus here is on ability and willingness beyond knowledge, and on the perspective of the employer.

A simpler, three-step process linked to employability is proposed by Hillage and Pollard (1998). In this process, employability is determined by ability to secure suitable employment and to maintain this employment over a period of time, as well as effectiveness in obtaining different employment at a later time, if appropriate.

The Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training echoes a similar sentiment:

Employability skills are defined as skills required not only to gain employment, but also to progress within an enterprise so as to achieve one's potential and contribute successfully to enterprise strategic directions (2002, p. 3).
Students will be most employable when they continually learn, adapt to changes rapidly, apply critical thinking skills and innovate to create competitive advantage. They must also be willing to look inwards at their own needs and articulate these needs, always balancing the abstract and the concrete, like Janus:
Employers, universities and professional bodies agree that Australia needs to develop professionals who are highly skilled and ready to face the challenges of increased competition. More than ever we need professionals who are responsive to economic, social, cultural, technical and environmental change and can work flexibly and intelligently across business contexts. Australian industry requires new graduates who understand the part they play in building their organisations, and have the practical skills to work effectively in their roles (Precision Consultancy, 2007, p. 1).
For the purposes of this discussion, therefore, employability covers the range of skills necessary for graduates to gain employment, and to then contribute successfully in business. Lecturers must continue to explore the tension between job-readiness and employability and must encourage students to do the same. By doing so, both the university and the students become more competitive.

Global graduates

Efforts aimed at job-readiness and employability must reflect the global context and not just the local one. Therefore, "global graduates" possess skills which are relevant across international contexts. They have life experience; are willing to engage and learn from different cultures; and understand the global nature of business. Global graduates regularly and constructively use technology to enable communication and action. To have job-ready, employable global graduates is the desired outcome: however, there is one further consideration.

Generic skills

The final aspect is that of "generic skills". This term covers those necessary personal characteristics which are relevant in all workplaces. More and more, employers are recognising the importance of generic skills, and are conducting recruitment and selection activities and performance management with these in mind (Nankervis, Compton and Baird, 2005). Communication, initiative, flexibility, responsibility and decision-making are examples (Dench, 1997). The link between the effectiveness of graduates in the workplace (Jenkins, 1995) and generic skills, job-readiness, employability and a global perspective, cannot be denied.

The need for action

Having considered relevant terminology, it is appropriate to examine several situations and the implications of each. By way of example, graduates with very strong generic skills may lack the qualifications and experience relevant to particular jobs or to industry generally. Perhaps this group is neither job-ready nor employable (possibly, this is the experience of some Arts graduates). Different graduates (for instance, from the area of Accounting) could be very focussed on their area of expertise or interest but may lack the generic skills often linked to productivity and happiness in the workplace. While they would be able to perform accounting tasks proficiently (and are therefore job-ready), they may lack the skills such as communication and team-work which are so necessary in the workplace. A third group with very high academic grades may have had no exposure to business or to job-search opportunities. These students may be suited to academic careers (and are job-ready in a sense) but are possibly not employable. Additional support will probably be needed for them to obtain and succeed in employment, even in academic circles.

The need for action is evident. In all circumstances, the students mentioned are disadvantaged because they lack the skills, experience and business exposure needed so they can move to the next step in their lives. Something must change to ensure that students are job-ready and employable in a global sense. As it is no longer enough to be strong academically, a more holistic measure of success is needed. The most suitable candidate for employment is not necessarily the one with the highest grades.

The ECU response

ECU has taken a leading role in responding to the situation by addressing market feedback. Over the last two years, a small team from across the Faculty has worked to develop and refine the Business Edge program, which grew from the Management Development program run at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. This compulsory program, which runs across all three years of the Bachelor of Arts degree at Strathclyde, supports students to develop business skills in preparation for professional, management and leadership opportunities (Management Development Programme, n.d.).

At ECU, the Faculty has, for many years, directed its efforts to promote global graduates: "We in the Faculty of Business and Law will lead in applied international business education and research, developing leaders for our communities" (B&L: Faculty Vision and Values, 2008, p. 1). The emphasis of Business Edge must reflect the increasing demand of a globalised business world and the needs of the many international students in the Faculty.

Conceptual framework

Figure 1, below, shows the conceptual framework which underpins the intent and activities of Business Edge. Informing all activities are the Faculty Values and those of the University (B&L: Faculty Vision and Values, 2008). These Values surround and support the Faculty's Graduate Attributes (B&L Future Students - ECU Graduate Attributes, 2008) which link directly to many of the Employability Skills identified by industry (Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, n.d.; Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, 2002; Precision Consultancy, 2007). By linking the requirements of industry with the aspirations and activities of the University, all aspects become more relevant and accessible.

The framework is an amalgamation of material from the University, the Faculty and industry publications to reflect the focus of Business Edge.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Conceptual framework.

Structure of the degree and the program

It is useful at this point to provide background to the Bachelor of Business award (hereafter referred to as "the degree") and the Business Edge program at ECU. Students in the Faculty choose one or two major areas of study in the degree, including Marketing, Finance, Accounting, Management, Business Law and Human Resource Management. All students complete the Business Core Program (five units from a choice of seven, totalling 75 credit points) and the ECU Business Edge Program (four compulsory units, totalling 60 credit points). The Major Program (eight units, totalling 120 credit points, where the first unit of the chosen major is one of the Business Core units above) and the Supplementary Program (a program within or outside the degree, totalling 120 credit points) complete the degree (B&L: Courses - Bachelor of Business, 2008).

The first Business Edge unit is Foundations of Business Knowledge (BES1100), which is studied in the first semester of the first year. This unit allows students to develop their personal effectiveness, communication and team skills. In the second semester of the first year, Business Knowledge Development (BES1200) is completed. In this unit, students develop skills from the previous semester and explore the areas of data gathering and analysis, decision making and self-reflection. In the second year, students complete Foundations of Business Leadership (BES2100). This unit focusses on advanced interpersonal skills, mediation, negotiation and entrepreneurship. In the third year unit, Business Career Development (BES3100), students prepare for employment by considering the dual perspectives of the employer and the employee, and also consider the broader social context of business. The units are complimentary and progressive to best prepare students for their future careers.

Developing the Business Edge Vision and objectives

The Faculty team is working to develop a Business Edge Vision and to clarify program objectives, as these were not explicit in the past. Undertaking these activities allows the team to have a sense of shared ownership and common direction; these attributes enhance the student experience as well. The team seeks to improve the integrity of teaching and learning, manage the rapid growth of program delivery onshore, online and offshore, foster and develop industry collaboration and gain support from all stakeholders.

As the number of students in the program continues to grow, it is essential to share best practice and to learn from the students. The term "best practice" is often used and overused; in the context of Business Edge, the comments of Reddy and McCarthy (2006) are especially relevant. Best practice involves finding ways to organise what is already known by linking individuals and groups to information and people to other people. Because best practice promotes efficiency, it also enhances competitiveness.

The flowchart at Figure 2 provides a focus to the activities and demonstrates the inter-relationship between intentions, actions and outcomes. The flowchart was created to ensure that activities occur in a logical and suitable sequence and that all relevant factors are considered in a proactive manner. This process is especially necessary because of the rapid development and scale of the Business Edge program.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Flowchart

The practicalities

Business Edge is a logical series of units which are practical and skills-based, in which students work on business problems and challenges. Students are provided with the opportunity and the tools to work face-to-face and in virtual teams, with the aim of exposing them to realistic workplace expectations and behaviour. They use a variety of on-line resources in a purpose-built classroom setting, and they develop and critically appraise their skills in the areas of communication, team work, analysis, research, numeracy and ethics (B&L: Information for Future Students - ECU Business Edge, 2008).

In Business Edge, student-centred facilitation methods are used as often as possible rather than content-based teaching activities. The former is an advanced skill, aimed at allowing individuals and groups to set, achieve and exceed expectations and to realise potential (Bentley, 1994). Ground rules linked to realistic business behaviour are created collaboratively and enforced collectively, and students realistically prepare for the workplace by practicing skills, sharing knowledge and developing personal and professional networks in a safe environment. For example, final year Business Edge students developed business plans for start-up and operational organisations recently, and this material was presented in a question and answer session involving industry, community based business support groups and fellow students. As shown by Janus, opportunities will only be fully realised when lecturers and students are able critically to consider what has occurred already and what is likely to occur, as well as what is expected from one self and from others, and what others expect in return. A clear feedback loop has been created between students, employers and ECU to best prepare students for the transition from study to work, from one level of employment to another, or (often in the case of international students) from a situation of little choice to a new world of opportunity.

As previously shown in the conceptual framework (Figure 1), the Business Edge program makes the Faculty Values, Graduate Attributes and Employability Skills more accessible and explicit. For some students, however, the reality of needing to apply for employment and the associated expectations will be more relevant and accessible than words and phrases. Regardless, student feedback from focus groups and reflective journal entries has been candid and constructive, and confirms the value of the program:

I'm currently in my third year at university, about to graduate with a Bachelor of Business. The prospect of going out into the real world was quite overwhelming, but while applying for jobs, I realised I'm more prepared than I thought ... The Business Edge programme has been the perfect complement to my other Business units. While the other units provide me with the academic knowledge to excel in my area of specialisation, the Edge programme helps ensure I get to put it into practice.

Now that I'm in my third year, and getting ready for life in the real world, the Edge units are proving to be even more useful. I have found that the skills I learnt are called for in almost every selection criteria for employment I look at! It is also nice to have a set time to work on my rZsumZ and interview skills during this hectic year, and come up with a plan to get my dream job.

There will be further opportunities to assist students as the program is monitored, adjusted and refined. Challenges expressed by students include differing ability levels and communication skills and how to most effectively work in groups and manage workloads equitably. These are also the challenges of the workplace. In requiring students to reflect on the program, facilitators instil in them the habit of deeper lifelong learning. Sometimes, the simplest feedback is the most powerful:
To be honest, I have realised many things in this unit. Now I can get my priorities right. In other words, I'm trying to think about the best way to go in the future.
Janus would be proud! Students are provided with a context which is experiential rather than purely theoretical and is legitimate and must be valued. This approach allows and encourages students to consolidate their skills and apply their learning to other units and to their degree as a whole.

Further outcomes

As a result of the program, it is clear that students' standard of work and level of critical thinking has significantly improved. Business Edge students have successfully obtained part-time or casual employment to support their studies as a result of the program, and similar success is expected from graduating students. Also, students have worked with local businesses to produce detailed, relevant and innovative documents which have been implemented immediately, and a Business Edge student finished in the top four contestants in the recent W.A. Business Icon competition. These examples, and there will be many more, are the impetus for all involved with Business Edge to work even harder.

Staffing

The ambitious nature of Business Edge presents staffing challenges in terms of availability and willingness to teach the program and, importantly, ability to facilitate. As demonstrated in Figure 3, below, the number of classes and student numbers has grown significantly in four semesters alone. At the end of 2008, class sizes were reduced from 35 to 25 in response to student and facilitator feedback. This has improved classroom interaction opportunities as well as responsiveness to queries, timeliness of marking and ability to provide additional support to individuals and to groups.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Class and student numbers

Most Business Edge facilitators already teach in one of the Schools in the Faculty (and are located within their respective School) and this supports the Faculty-wide contribution and relevance of Business Edge. Many other facilitators have either business or education backgrounds or both. Business Edge is a unique opportunity for Schools to work together and to own and connect with the program. Over time, the success and relevance of the Business Edge program will become an attraction factor.

It is essential to ensure that facilitators are well supported, and that their involvement in the program strengthens rather than dilutes their contribution to their chosen discipline. The program reflects the need to reduce the "silo" mentality (a focus on a single or preferred area of expertise or interest) which is at times evident for students, academics and the wider community. Managing relationships and expectations to ensure that the Business Edge program is recognised for the value that it adds to the degree is essential.

The Unit Co-ordinators, the Business Edge Co-ordinator and the Director of Undergraduate Studies are pivotal positions in the success of the program (as reflected in the Figure 2 flowchart). The clear reporting structure which has been established ensures that day-to-day logistics as well as longer term plans are well managed. The structure also ensures congruency between activities conducted and the intent of the program overall, and promotes succession planning and best practice.

Future directions

This is the first in a series of publications which will explore the Business Edge program in further detail. The "Tracking the students" project (a longitudinal study which will report on and evaluate the progress of Business Edge students as they move into the workforce) commenced in late 2008, and a "mapping" activity is also taking place to re-examine the content of each Business Edge unit and how units relate to one another as well as more broadly across the Faculty. Other opportunities include the challenges of catering for different ability levels, balancing facilitation and content levels, and assisting students to become more reflective learners. The challenges related to team work and diversity, as well as the integration of practicum and internships are further areas of relevance.

Conclusion

The Business Edge program is, in a sense, only now coming to maturity. Students have taken the third year unit only in 2008 and very few have, as yet, tested the value of the program in the workforce in equipping them as both job-ready and employable graduates. As mentioned previously, though, every indication is positive and the outcomes achieved already are significant. There are valid and compelling reasons to act, and students and the community insist that action is not delayed. The program is being constantly revised and improved, and many resources are being invested in working with stakeholders within the University and, importantly, with industry partners externally. The symbolic significance of Janus' qualities of change and transition not only apply to the outcomes desired for students, but must also drive the behaviour modelled in the development of Business Edge.

Acknowledgments

With thanks to colleagues from the Faculty and to Charlotte Martin, postgraduate student, for their assistance and constructive comments during the preparation of this paper.

References

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. (n.d.). Employability Skills - an Employers' Perspective. [viewed 16 Oct 2008] http://linkup.tafesa.edu.au/downloads/ACCI_Employability_Skills_Brochure.pdf

Bentley, T. (1994). Facilitation: Providing Opportunities for Learning. Journal of European Industrial Training, 18(5), pp. 8-22.

B& L: About The Faculty (2008). [viewed 1 Oct 2008] http://www.business.ecu.edu.au/faculty/

B&L: Courses - Bachelor of Business (2008). [viewed 15 Oct 2008] http://www.business.ecu.edu.au/courses/bbus/

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B&L Future Students - ECU Graduate Attributes (2008). [viewed 3 Oct 2008] from http://www.business.ecu.edu.au/future-students/grad-attributes.htm

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Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training (2002). Employability skills for the future. [viewed 2 Oct 2008] http://www.dest.gov.au/NR/rdonlyres/4E332FD9-B268-443D-866C-621D02265C3A/2212/final_report.pdf

Dench, S. (1997). Changing skill needs: What makes people employable? Industrial and Commercial Training, 29(6), 90-193.

Edith Cowan University (2008). Engaging Minds; Engaging Communities. Towards 2020. [viewed 10 Oct 2008] http://www.ecu.edu.au/GPPS/ppas/docs/2008_Engagement_Strategic_Plan.pdf

Hillage, J. & Pollard, E. (1998). Employability: Developing a framework for policy analysis. [viewed 4 Oct 2008] http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RB85.doc

Jenkins, A. (1995). Linking skills, academics and disciplinary concerns. In A. Jenkins & A. Ward (Eds.), Developing skill-based curricula through the disciplines: Case studies of good practice in geography. SEDA Paper 89. pp. 121-131.

Lindemans, M. (1999). Janus. [viewed 16 Oct 2008] http://www.pantheon.org/articles/j/janus.html

Maiden, S. & Kerr, J. (2006). Graduates 'lacking job skills'. [viewed 16 Oct 2008] http://www.bacs.uq.edu.au/CurriculumReview/Australian130306.pdf

Management Development Programme (n.d.). [viewed 2 Oct 2008] http://www.strathmdp.com/

Nankervis, A., Compton, R. & Baird, M. (2005). Human Resource Management (5th ed.). Southbank, Melbourne: Thomson.

Precision Consultancy (2007). Graduate Employability Skills. [viewed 2 Oct 2008] http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/higher_education/publications_resources/profiles/graduate_employability_skills.htm

Reddy, W. & McCarthy, S. (2006). Sharing best practice. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, 19(7), 594-598.

Yorke, M. (2006). Employability in higher education: What it is - what it is not. [viewed 13 Oct 2008] http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/publications/learningandemployability

Authors: Troy Fuller and Glenda Scott (both principal authors)
Edith Cowan University. Email: t.fuller@ecu.edu.au, glenda.scott@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Fuller, T. & Scott, G. (2009). Employable global graduates: The 'edge' that makes the difference. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/fuller.html

Copyright 2009 Troy Fuller and Glenda Scott. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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