Employability: What does the research tell us?

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio, pexels, CC0

In this post, Helen Stringer, Assistant Director of the Careers Service at The University of Edinburgh, summarises key themes from the latest Advance HE review of employability literature, such as work-integrated learning and employment inequalities. This post is part of the Learning & Teaching Enhancement Series: Careers and Employability.

Last year, Advance HE conducted a thorough review of the employability literature from 2016–2021 and, though a year has elapsed since publication, the theme of this blog series presents a golden opportunity to revisit and share the findings.


Conducted by a research team from Oxford Brookes University, the review specifically addresses peer-reviewed journal articles, with the primary focus on ‘what works’ with supporting evidence. The research base was extensive with 580 peer-reviewed articles selected in total, covering: broader horizons (147), emerging impacts and evaluations (287), and demonstrable impact (146) and featuring long-term cohort studies, case studies, international comparative studies, and large-scale data sets. Although the UK is arguably at the forefront of research in this field, there are interesting perspectives from countries as diverse as the U.S., Portugal, South Africa, and Ghana.

It is well worth engaging with the full report, but for a quick and digestible synopsis, I have summarised the key themes from the associated webinar. The University of Edinburgh is a full Advance HE member, so all University staff should be able to access the suite of resources once they have set up an account.

Key themes

Work Integrated Learning and Enterprise Education

  1. Literature included in the review covered curricular, co-, and extra-curricular.
  2. Internships and placements:
    • Students believe these exert a positive impact. A more objective assessment of the literature suggests the reality is somewhat nuanced and mixed. To maximise benefits students need to engage fully with the process, challenge themselves and think critically about their own learning and development. Students who approach placements with an instrumentalist mind-set are less likely to capitalise on the experience
    • Increasing impact
      • Pre-placement and post-placement reflection on the development of graduate attributes – moving from passive to active involvement.
      • Contacting students to inform them they meet the requirements to apply for a placement and have the knowledge, skills, and understanding needed. Sometimes they don’t realise it’s a possibility and lack the confidence to apply.
    • Expectations
      • Communication, collaboration, and shared goal-setting between all three parties (students, university, and employer) ensures a seamless – and coherent – experience for the student and partners.

3. Entrepreneurial intent (desire to become an entrepreneur):

    • Enterprise education increases awareness but this can then deter students as they develop a more informed understanding of risk and benefit. Staff must be comfortable with this as a tolerable – and even accepted – outcome.

Measures and meaning of employability

  1. Extrinsic measures (OECD, TEF, GOS) are still important but personalised aspects are assuming greater prominence:
    • Horizontal fit: Less now about continuity of subject knowledge, and instead ‘continuities of meaning’ between the learning on the degree and the student’s/graduate’s place in world.
    • Higher levels of satisfaction where greater sense of fit in destination, and reduced cognitive dissonance.
    • PGR: Challenge to self-concept when PGR graduates do not find paid roles exist in their specialised area of education.  How far do students find consonance between what they’ve studied, learned, and developed, and labour market realities?

Employer recruitment and inequalities

  1. Literature focused on lower socioeconomic students, but very little assessing impact of ethnicity and sex.
  2. Labour market entry:
    • 40% of 100 largest employers are unlikely to recruit without a workplace placement. But lack of social/cultural capital means students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not realise the importance of placements to access ‘high status’ graduate opportunities and need support and encouragement.
    • Within recruitment, employers look at a cultural match between student and employer. Literature suggests this may decrease the chances for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Employers are more attuned to cultural sensitivities than previously, but barriers persist, not least in the use of language norms.

3. Inequalities of access to employability enhancement activities:

    • Students may understand the importance of co- and extra-curricular opportunities, but can lack time to engage (e.g. working, caring for dependents).
    • Opportunity stacking: Those with social capital often used placements to secure higher-value opportunities, using each step to consolidate their career advantage.

The Edinburgh context

From my perspective – and in the interests of transparency – I don’t feel there is anything particularly new or ground-breaking in the research. The predominant themes chime with our own assertions and commitment to maximise opportunity and ensure active participation in university life – and career-enhancing activities – for all students. However, it is a useful reminder and may serve as further impetus to integrate employability within the curriculum and wider student experience. Curriculum transformation provides a unique opportunity to assert and realise this intent.


photograph of the authorHelen Stringer

Helen Stringer is Assistant Director of the Careers Service at The University of Edinburgh, and has a remit for developing academic partnerships. Helen also manages a team of careers consultants, and worked with Dr Lynsey Russell-Watts – careers consultant for ECA – on the Career Resilience project.

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