A university’s careers service is one of its most important attributes. I say this for a number of reasons: firstly, we know how valuable an institution’s graduate employment statistics can be; it’s a measure that parents and students are interested in and it impacts the widely recognised league tables and the TEF Award. More importantly though, it’s vital that universities assist students in the search for employment, whether that be to narrow the attainment gap, broaden career horizons or build capacity and employability skills.
At Middlesex University, we felt that we could do this more effectively, so four years ago we set-up a new employability service and launched MDXworks (then known simply as the Online Employability Programme). In 2012, the year before the new service was launched, the careers service helped 1,000 of the University’s students. Last year, the service was used by over 10,000 students and graduates. So, what’s changed?
It’s important to understand the issues. 19,000 students study at our London campus with almost a third coming from overseas. 140 different nationalities are represented and of those students from the UK the vast majority are from London, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world. Our students can face challenges; many are time poor as they work while studying and have family caring responsibilities; for many, English is not their first language and for some they are attending university without the support and encouragement of a family. A lack of awareness of the opportunities that are open to them is also a factor, particularly for those students who are the first in their family to attend university and who may have entered via the less traditional route of a Higher National Diploma or Diploma.
Our students can face challenges; many are time poor as they work while studying and have family caring responsibilities; for many, English is not their first language and for some they are attending university without the support and encouragement of a family.
We therefore had to find a way to reach these students and engage them in the support available. Many had unique individual circumstances that, if they were to be overcome, required tailored support. A one-size-fits-all approach was never going to work.
To successfully meet the needs of students, we also had to bear in mind the restraints of being a University with an inner-city campus; space was a key consideration, as was the need to provide multiple and flexible mechanisms through which students could access support.
Cue MDXworks: a service that offers employability support on campus and online. The service gives both students and the employability team a choice as to which contact method is more convenient and more appropriate for the student. For students who wish to continue with – or even just begin – face-to-face meetings, the option is still there. The employability drop-in desk remains open and the team hold workshops around key employability skills. The University also hosts student recruitment agency Unitemps on site, giving students access to part-time jobs and employability advice in the same space.
MDXworks online offers students personalised employment support throughout the whole recruitment cycle, from CV to application to interview. The provision also offers enterprise support for start-ups, online skills assessments, a targeted jobs board and specialist LinkedIn support. Working collaboratively we have been able to achieve this through external partner, Exemplas.
Operating on behalf of the University, Exemplas’ Employability advisers offer individual webcam, email and telephone support to students throughout the year, including during holiday periods. Exemplas hold relationships with Middlesex’s employer partners, managing the individual accounts and offering tailored recruitment support for each employer. This approach has enabled the University to build effective and meaningful employer relationships.
MDXworks online offers students personalised employment support throughout the whole recruitment cycle, from CV to application to interview.
Collaborating with an external partner is really what has enabled us to make this service such a success. Our partnership with Exemplas has given us immediate and timely access to a flexible and experienced resource pool that enables us to meet peaks and troughs in demand across the range of services offered. Rather than adding an extra dimension to the employability service, Exemplas has provided the backbone for it.
The benefits of this blended approach – both online and physical – are many. Not only does it address our space, volume and resource challenges but, given the online world is one that students have grown up in and are accustomed to, using the online service is simply second nature to students, not to mention more convenient. This is evidenced in the statistics, with 85% of the 1:1 employability support provided by MDXworks online. Not only is the online offering more convenient, it also opens the door for students who, for whatever reason, would be less likely to make use of the Employability Service on campus. As outlined earlier, it is helpful for students who may not have English as their first language and who would be more comfortable using online support at their own speed; it is helpful for students with caring responsibilities and who need to spend as little time away from home as possible; and it is helpful for students who lack the confidence to discuss their circumstances face to face. Whatever the situation for the student MDXworks online enables the University to interact with its students and to provide students with support that may well make a difference to their employment outcome.
All our programmes have an emphasis on skills development, support digital literacy and provide access to professional work experience.
Also key to the service’s success are specialist ‘Employability Business Partners’, whose role it is to collaborate with academic colleagues in faculties to promote employability at subject and programme level. All our programmes have an emphasis on skills development, support digital literacy and provide access to professional work experience. Essential skills for operating effectively in the modern workforce are core to each course to ensure Middlesex graduates are equipped to work in a VUCA world. The team have also put in place tactical support relevant to particular courses, for example students on arts and creative industry courses will attend workshops designed to support them into self-employment and to manage a portfolio career.
Despite the success of the model, we are aware that there are still students who do not realise that we can support them. To counter this, MDXworks includes a customer relationship management (CRM) tracking system – another benefit of our partnership with Exemplas – which allows the employability team to see which students have not interacted, and proactively contact them. This enables the team to identify trends in particular groups of students who are not interacting but would welcome support.
As MDXworks enters its fifth academic year in September, we’re incredibly proud of the work that has already taken place. The service has helped thousands of students and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. However there is always more that can be done, so we will continue to look at new and innovative ways of both engaging with and supporting our graduates as they seek to enter the world of work.
Kate Douglas is Director of Employability at Middlesex University