An introduction to 'The Graduate Transitions' project

Prior to starting a career in Ulster University Business School, Nikki was co-founder and HR Director of her own business and a Fellow of the CIPD and is well placed to understand employer expectations of graduates for the future workplace.

Consequently, Nikki as Course Director, understood her role in leading a programme team in developing graduates who are resilient, professional, confident in their entrepreneurial endeavour and global citizens that could meaningfully contribute to their professional communities and wider society. To this end, Nikki led a unique curriculum design team of external consultants and UU academics creating two workshops, The Resilient Graduate and Mindful Leader to enable resilience skills for graduates transitioning to the future workplace.

The two workshops are integrated into a final year compulsory module on Leadership and Professional Development. Some examples of the embedded learning include, understanding stress, rejection, trauma, emotional intelligence & resilience, self-care and meditation. Piloted in 2018, the workshops have now reached University wide over 500 final year students transitioning to the workplace.

Student feedback has been very positive, particularly on the awareness of tools to strengthen their mental health and well-being. A paper has recently been published (March 2020) ‘Developing resilient graduates to be future workplace leaders’ that provides further insight into the innovative pedagogical practices underpinning the workshops

The lightening pace of change in the workplace is beyond any individual’s imagination and for transitioning students this contributes to the current climate of increasing mental health challenges. Nevertheless, recruiting employers expect graduates to be ‘work ready’, focusing on resilience as one of the top three desired skills (CBI, 2019).

Consequently, Higher Education (HE) is increasingly pressurised by government and employers to produce work ready graduates that can contribute to our economy and wider society.  This concurs with the aspirations of the newly established Graduate Outcomes Survey which aims to measure graduate success in the HE sector.

This research paper will share with our CABS academic community the evaluation of an institution wide intervention seeking to deepen awareness of personal resilience and mindfulness in transitioning students. It is anticipated that this may stimulate consideration by CABS colleagues to also pilot and provide such an intervention institutionally wide.

Graduate employers, of any discipline, are seeking to recruit future leaders who can confidently demonstrate 21st Century Skills and contribute to business or organisational performance.  Transitioning graduates therefore need to be ‘work ready’ and resilient for their future of work.

McIntosh and Shaw (2017) argue that in developing the resilient graduate, the learning environment cannot be separated from the real-world context in which the student will eventually find themselves. HE Institutions should therefore be committed to providing students with learning opportunities aligned to this concept of ‘being’ thus developing a clearer sense of themselves and their capabilities, how they gain self-confidence and how to become the best version of themselves on (and beyond) graduation.

Magowan (2018) on the future of work claims that the future of work is learning and adapting in a ‘dynamic flux’ and that learning is not exclusively about technology and criticality.  Therefore, learning must have a focus on identity, mindset and enablers to learn and adapt continuously. Barnett and Coate (2005) purport that students can develop a capacity for ‘being in the world’ and becoming independent thinkers despite continuous feelings of failure and rejection from social media messaging.

A large-scale study by Unite Students (2016) in the UK, reported that students are increasingly experiencing mental health problems and mental distress.  This has resulted in a plethora of requests for policy makers and educationalists to address the issues facing students in the sector and to make provision to support and develop their resilience both whilst studying and in preparation for the complex and ever-changing world of work.

McIntosh and Shaw (2017, p8), define resilience as, “the ability to recover – to bounce back – from misfortune and to adjust to change”.  Stallman (2011, p122) claims that resilience in the context of a learning environment, “enables students to sustain motivation and focus when faced with difficult tasks”.  Resilience provides students with capacity to deal with difficult emotions, including stress and anxiety, that can impact negatively on their performance (Claxton, 2002).  Stallman (2011) further states that resilience is not an innate trait but rather, encompasses ways of thinking and action that can be learnt and developed in all students.

The purpose of the ‘Graduate Transition’ workshops are to further any transitioning student’s understanding of employer expectation, deepen self-understanding as professionals, and their role in the future workplace.  This research paper shares the integrated curriculum design, co-creation, operationalisation and evaluation of ‘Graduate Transitions’ that was piloted in a compulsory final year module across a number of programmes in Ulster University.

After piloting the workshops (2018-19) with 100 students, another 300 students from 3 further faculties across the wider institute have engaged in the ‘Graduate Transition’ workshops. Initial findings show that the ‘Graduate Transition’ workshops actively embed practical coping strategies for resilience and mindfulness in transitioning graduates. It assures employers that employability and professional practice competencies are experienced by HE-transitioning graduates. Nevertheless, challenges were encountered with ‘Graduate Transition’ workshops and these too will be shared with our CABS academic community.