If you do not connect learning and practice you will be out of competition. In the age of shared value creation and networking, this holds for any organization, as it does for any individual who wants to become and remain successfully employed in today’s dynamic labour market. Working in a classical research focused, mainly public-funded, university like we have in Groningen, the Netherlands, with over 400 years of experience in academic excellence, connectivity with the real world has of course always been a spearhead, but career, alumni and business services are still relatively new cups of tea on our plate.
For a long time our mind-set and value proposition has been: “student, we provide you with world class research-driven education, and we help you to develop yourself as a critical thinker at an academic level. After that it’s up to you to make the best of it”.
In the last decade an additional focus was aroused by the changing needs of the labour market and the knowledge society, by pressure from accreditation bodies, and by shifts in financial resourcing. All of these have contributed to the need for more “societal accountability” and an increasing sense of urgency for academia to open its doors further to external cooperation. But it were not only externals knock, knock, knocking on university’s door. There are also the intrinsically motivated voices within the university that call for a more open model with new and stronger links to society and business. Students, especially the fast growing number of internationals that come to our campus, pose the “employability question” more often, and also more academics actively seek joined approaches to connect their research and education with real-world issues and challenges, even if this not always the fastest track to their tenure. Alumni too want to remain connected, both for lifelong learning and as business partners.
In this changing higher education landscape, career services can plan a crucial role, act as a catalyst in connecting different stakeholders both externally and internally. To optimize its impact a career service can be so much more than a stand-alone office where students can have their cv checked and find an internship or a job vacancy. At the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB) we are currently focusing on joining forces between our careers service and our educational programmes, thus not only strengthening external but also internal relations.
Linking Career Services and Academics
As for any sustainable development, the support of top management is crucial to make things happen. Career Services must engage top-leaders in the conversation about curricular integration in a sophisticated manner. Because of those conversations, in the last three years our school has invested substantially in a new organizational unit called the FEB Careers Company in which several projects linking academia and society have started.
To foster mutual cooperation a dedicated team of five teachers has been formed that works in direct interaction with career support staff. An academic director, full professor in educational innovation, is supervising several career related modules that have been developed.
One example is our Student Consultancy for regional SME’s that is embedded as a new elective course in the curriculum. This project was developed in partnership with the local chamber of commerce and supported by the regional government in the Northern part of the Netherlands. Students work in multidisciplinary teams on real world assignments. Because master and bachelor students can both enter, we are able to create a junior-senior business consultant model where each students can contribute and learn at his or her own level. Knowledge development and application go hand in hand in this motivating learning environment for students, teachers and participating companies.
Additionally, our new multi-level Learning Communities dealing with several societal relevant subjects and employability skills have started. Students of different programmes and levels work in this extracurricular format together with their teachers and alumni on a range of topics like Mergers and Acquisitions, Programming Skills, Social Impact Analysis of Global Investments, Moral Decision Making and Personal Leadership. Each Learning Community defines its outcomes in dialogue with the participants and self directs its activities.
Employability Audit and Strategy Development
In order to further develop the integration of career and curricular activities, an internal audit was organized, engaging all BSc and MSc programme directors. They were asked to formulate their vision, goals, actions and required resources, related to the topic of employability and they were interviewed on a range of issues, like:
availability of information on graduates
integration of the professional field
development of professional skills and attitude
relating students and prospective employers
cooperation with study associations
stimulating students to participate in extra-curricular activities
knowledge of and experience with FEB Careers Company services and wishes for cooperation
As a result we were able to formulate action plans for all of the individual programmes and to define additional ways of cooperation between career staff and academics. We reported the findings to the board and after that to the programme directors as a group. We defined five projects together with them and asked the program directors in which they want to be involved. In each project new approaches and content will be developed that can be used by the other programmes.
As always, innovation is not a linear process and it can be time consuming to work across department borders, but through persistence and dialogue, we have experienced that the result of embedding employability helps us to transform the success of our students and the university.
Wijnand Aalderink MA, is the Director of Career Services and Corporate Relations, and a Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. You can connect with you on LinkedIn.