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By Dr Sian Rees, Head of Department of Media, Communication & PR, Swansea University
An increasing number of students are emerging from higher education institutions with an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification in public relations, but is this education really serving graduates, or indeed the industry itself? One particular challenge is whether achieving ‘employability’ for graduates is synergistic with, or contrary to, the academic curriculum and its goals. This is a highly contentious area of debate with many academics conceptualising a binary opposition between employability and academic goals. There is often a misalignment between what academics perceive as important skills, and the view of employers, resulting in a notable lack of practice-based perspectives in many programmes, which remain constructed on a traditional knowledge framework.
I recently conducted research into employability best practice at higher education institutions both in the UK and abroad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, leading universities in this area are highly focused on employability as an outcome, providing specific content within their curricula and available online. They train students in specific employability skills by organising workshops, placements and alumni talks, often supported by a central and professional careers service. These skills focus on the process of gaining employment, such as CV writing and interview practice, but also on softer attributes such as team working, presentations and leadership. In general, these practices tend to take quite a functionalist approach, seeing employability as something that students might gain whilst at university.
Research reports which gathered data from graduates and employers found that many traditional subjects create assessments which involve problem-solving and reflection, which are arguably valuable skills in PR. Those that seem to be particularly flourishing take this one-step further, by embedding industry-style assessments and creative approaches to deal with academic content, such as the creation of audio-visual content, blogs, websites, journals and reports. Of particular importance is the concept of critical thinking, in which subject areas encourage students to challenge hegemonic views, develop arguments and construct solutions for societal-level problems.
Over a five year period in our own PR and media department we introduced a range of employability activities including modules which address specific industry skill requirements, such as PR writing, digital communications practice and media production, alongside a year in industry, an advisory industry panel and industry accreditation. Authentic assessment, in which critical and practical PR theory is linked to problem-solving, creativity and real-life scenarios, emerged as a particularly successful characteristic of employability in the department. These often focus on reflection and self-empowerment, with students taken out of their comfort zone through creative group working.
Strong contacts have been formed with a wide range of local PR employers, university departments and non-for-profit organisations to set up a range of short and long-term communications placements and work-integrated learning projects. Excellent student feedback during this period suggests that this type of content and teaching approach was received extremely well by students. Perhaps the sense of purpose, and the interactive nature of much of this teaching, is an important aspect to consider in itself. High attendance rates in classes which have been adapted to include entrepreneurial skills suggests this may be a way forward, not only to facilitate the acquisition of employability skills and capabilities, but also as a more compelling way to engage with subject knowledge.
My research revealed that best practice in employability activities and services empowers an entrepreneurial approach in its professionals and academics, which is then manifested in entrepreneurial characteristics engendered in self-motivated and resilient students. To be able to transfer useful skills to the student body, it is necessary to give students the freedom to experiment with different assessments and content. This can make students feel uncomfortable, but often leads to high quality thinking and work which re-centres intellectual and critical enquiry. Seen in this light, employability, and the acquisition of useful skills and attributes, might be seen as serving the more social, rather than capitalist aims of the entrepreneurial ideal. Such a perspective fits more easily with the non-commercial aspirations of many higher education subjects, combining action and reflection (praxis), to ensure that learning is socially and intellectually useful, as well as useful to industries like PR.
Further details of the research can be found at: Sian Rees (2019) ‘Re-imagining Employability: an Ontology of Employability Best Practice in Higher Education Institutions’ in Teaching in Higher Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2019.1670637
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