Understanding Approaches to Supporting Multi/Interdisciplinary Students with Developing and Articulating Employability Skills
Ida Kemp, OU Visiting Fellow
Helen Cooke, Senior Manager
The Open University, United Kingdom
The Open University is the UK’s leading university for flexible, innovative teaching and world-leading research. It was established in 1969 to offer higher education tuition to individuals who were working or otherwise not able to attend university and it caters primarily to part-time students. Its innovative and award-winning distance teaching experience has seen over 2 million students receive an education, both in the UK and in 157 countries worldwide.
 August 2018 – July 2020
This article reports on the outcomes of two inter-related projects funded by The Open University (UK) between February 2019 and July 2020. Both projects focussed on exploring approaches to supporting multi-subject and/or interdisciplinary students with developing and understanding employability skills, from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective, across the UK and European higher education (HE) sector. The study also addressed the many issues which surround employment opportunities and outcomes for students who pursue multi-subject or interdisciplinary programmes of study.
Specific research questions included:
- What theoretical frameworks already exist to guide research into interdisciplinary teaching and learning, specifically in the context of employability and graduate outcomes?
- What are the skills that are likely to provide distinctive opportunities for multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduates in the working environment?
- How are these skills embedded and recognised consistently within the curriculum?
- Is there any evidence to suggest that multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduates have more success in finding employment and/or whether this depends on the combination of subjects?
- Is there any information about whether the skills of multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduates are articulated any differently to those of ‘single honours’ graduates?
- Does career advice offered by universities differ if students are taking multi-subject or single-subject degrees?
Research methods included a literature review and scoping survey of website and marketing materials; two focus group discussions (one at a UK Combined Honours Network meeting hosted by The Open University in May 2019 and one at the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies international conference held in Amsterdam in October 2019), involving a total of 31 participants from the UK, Europe and the USA; two online surveys issued to a small targeted group of university staff who support multi-subject/interdisciplinary students and 112 careers services; and three telephone interviews with Heads of Careers at UK universities. In addition, work undertaken by Pigden and Moore (2018) formed the basis of the graduate outcome data.
Promotion of multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes of study
Within the UK higher education sector, multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes are often marketed as programmes which offer additional skills and experience. For example, the UK Combined Honours Network hosts a webpage which outlines skills aimed at employers; suggesting that graduates of such programmes are independent, can demonstrate decision-making skills, are good at time management, are adaptable and flexible and have an understanding of different processes and systems. Key skills identified by individual university websites in relation to multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes demonstrate a wide-ranging skill set and competencies across different subjects, including:
- Good organisational skills
However, our research identified that there was no evidence to suggest that these attributes are communicated formally to students once they decide to study these degrees, nor that they are presented to students by careers or employability teams. Students are therefore expected to identify and articulate these skills themselves and be able to communicate them effectively to potential employers. There was also no evidence that careers or academic teams reminded students that they might have ‘additional’ skillsets which are likely to be attractive to employers, nor highlighted additional skills found within the delivery of the curriculum. Although some programmes may include reference to these skills in their ‘Intended Learning Outcomes’, students are rarely aware of these documents and are therefore unlikely to refer to them.
Additionally, the websites surveyed as part of this research did not demonstrate clearly that there was any evidence that these skills enhanced employability prospects for multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduates; instead, the information was simply ‘presented’. Little research has been undertaken in graduate outcomes for multi-subject/interdisciplinary students and the few studies that have been undertaken are limited in scope. This confirms that, although there is a feeling that multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduates bring additional advantages to workplace environments, this has not been evidenced or systematically monitored.
Evaluation of employment and graduate outcomes data
Within a UK graduate outcome landscape, Pigden and Moore (2018) undertook a study which analysed data regarding graduate outcomes between 2012 and 2015. Their analysis, which included data from all UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), found that outcomes for ‘highly skilled’ graduates, at least in the short term, were less favourable for multi-subject/joint honours graduates than ‘single-honours’ graduates. In short:
“The potential disbenefits of studying for a joint honours degree are apparent in this study. Joint honours students may face organisational, academic and cultural challenges that require a positive, conscious and sustained effort to overcome, on both the part of the student and the higher education institution.”
The work of Pigden and Moore (2018) also reinforces many of the observations raised by interview participants as part of the research. For example, when considering graduate ‘success’, there is a clear bias within the definitions of ‘highly-skilled’ employment, which favours technical and mathematical professions. This may therefore have a negative impact on graduate outcomes within the ‘highly-skilled’ level for multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduates, due to the definitions associated with the UK’s Office for National Statistics Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Hierarchy. Across the UK HE sector, many multi-subject degrees are found within arts and humanities subjects, such as modern languages, history, English and philosophy. In addition, the original study undertaken by Pigden and Moore (2018) also does not take into account the subjects that students included in their degree. There is a very good chance that degree programmes that include a ‘business’, medical or vocational subject may demonstrate better graduate outcomes, particularly in the shorter time scale of the DLHE survey, than other subject combinations.
There may also be a gender bias inherent in recording graduate ‘success’. Research undertaken by Blyth and Cleminson (2016) found that male graduates were much more likely to be in ‘highly-skilled’ employment than female graduates, six months after graduation (the DLHE survey window). Data published by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes – and particularly arts, languages and humanities subjects – are more likely to be studied by female students. Therefore, the potential ‘disbenefits’ are likely to have an even greater impact for multi-subject/interdisciplinary graduate outcomes as these graduates are more likely to be female.
Although our full research findings aren’t included in this short article, our research has found that students who pursue multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes of study at undergraduate level (particularly in the UK) do not appear to receive careers or employment advice that might help to articulate additional skills or knowledge that studying more than one subject might provide. The research also revealed that, although there is general agreement among careers and academic staff that these students are likely to have developed an enhanced set of skills compared to ‘single-honours’ students, there is very little, if any, recognition of these skills within the programmes of study themselves. Instead, the general approach is that students are responsible for identifying and highlighting these skills to potential employers. We believe that it is clear from the research that there is a need to provide better support and guidance to students who study more than one subject or who study what might be considered ‘multi-’ or ‘interdisciplinary’ programmes of study, in relation to careers and employability.
Additionally, as is likely the case in other countries, we have discovered that it is very difficult to monitor employment/graduate outcomes for multi-subject/interdisciplinary students! Due to the inconsistent way in which different HEIs monitor, record and track multi-subject/interdisciplinary students, it is impossible to compare them accurately. In the UK, this has increasing relevance with the ongoing development of a Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and is a concern to many providers of multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes.
Based on the findings of this study, we propose the following recommendations for all institutions offering multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes of study to consider:
- Academic and programme teams that support multi-subject/interdisciplinary students at a departmental level should promote the additional skills and knowledge gained by pursuing a multi-subject/interdisciplinary degree to students during their studies – not just in promotional materials;
- Students should be encouraged to feel confident in pursuing multi-subject/interdisciplinary degrees and articulating the advantages and motivations to potential employers;
- Careers services staff need to recognise that students study a range of subjects and that, although they might not receive advice directly related to multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes, they aren’t unusual;
- Staff who support multi-subject/interdisciplinary programmes both academically and administratively should be recognised for their unique insight into the advantages the programmes provide to a graduate workforce;
- Particular emphasis may need to be placed on supporting female students (depending on the institution), as they not only make up a larger proportion of multi-subject/interdisciplinary student cohorts across the sector, but there is a clear gender bias in graduate employment rates.
Embedding our findings at The Open University
The research is already having an impact on the work within The Open University. This has particular importance as the suite of multidisciplinary qualifications that make up The Open University’s ‘Open Programme’ (which is available at both undergraduate and postgraduate level) form the university’s largest degree programme in terms of student numbers and module choice (Figure 1). Students studying towards these qualifications currently account for almost 20% of all Open University graduates and over 236,000 alumni have graduated with an ‘Open’ qualification since 1971 (Cooke et al, 2018).
 https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/what-study (December 2019)
The outcomes of our research are already enabling us to improve and enhance the learning experience for this large cohort of multi-subject students with regard to employability and career progression. For example, updated content on our student-facing qualification support websites (Figure 2) helps students make appropriate module choices when identifying career options and provides better-informed guidance on how best to present multidisciplinary study as part of job applications and promotion cases.
The findings have also added value to strategic work being undertaken by The Open University around enhancing employability and career progression, by providing insight from other institutions across the sector relating to a relatively under-researched area of teaching and learning. This insight has helped to inform the development of tailored Personal Development Planning (PDP) resources for multi-subject students through the university’s ‘FutureYOU’ PDP platform and contributed significantly to other strategic priorities and scholarship work relating to embedding employability in the curriculum (Cooke and Meade, 2020).
Given the personalised and varied learning requirements of multidisciplinary students, the use of an online environment to provide appropriate support has a particularly important role to play, not just at a distance learning institution like The Open University. With an increasing focus on the provision of online teaching and learning, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, developing valuable online materials means that all institutions could consider offering additional support to their multi-subject/interdisciplinary students, enabling them to think more holistically about their programmes of study and their career and/or life aspirations.
We sincerely thank The Open University’s Learning and Teaching Innovation and Scholarship (LATIS) and Enhanced Employability and Career Progression (EECP) teams who provided funding for this research, as well as colleagues at The Open University, other institutions and members of the Association of Interdisciplinary Studies community for their participation and support with this research.
Helen Cooke (corresponding author, email@example.com) leads on all development, management and governance duties relating to The Open University’s multidisciplinary ‘Open’ qualifications and undertakes scholarship activities relating to teaching, learning and employability, particularly in relation to supporting students on multi-subject degrees in an online environment. Helen is a Senior Fellow of AdvanceHE and a member of the Association of University Administrators (AUA), a UK professional body supporting managers and professional staff across the higher education sector.
Ida Kemp is the Chair of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Conferences, UK, and a Senior Fellow of AdvanceHE. She has worked in several universities supporting multi-subject/interdisciplinary students in the north of England, as well as acting as an External Assessor (external consultant) across the UK. Ida has a Liberal Arts degree from The College of Wooster (Ohio, USA) and promotes interdisciplinary experiences for students whenever possible.
Blyth, P. and Cleminson, A. (2016). Teaching Excellence Framework: analysis of highly skilled employment outcomes, Research report, Department for Education, available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teaching-excellence-framework-highly-skilled-employment-outcomes [accessed 8 July 2020]
Cooke, H.J., Lane, A. and Taylor, P.G. (2018). Open by Degrees: A Case of Flexibility or Personalization? In: Stevenson, Carolyn ed. Enhancing Education Through Open Degree Programs and Prior Learning Assessment. IGI Global
Cooke, H.J. and Meade, R. (2020). “The Open University’s Employability Framework: making sense of employability for multidisciplinary students”, in Norton, S. and Dairymple, R. Enhancing Graduate Employability: a case study compendium, AdvanceHE, Online at https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/enhancing-graduate-employability-case-study-compendium [accessed 8 July 2020]
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Pigden, L. and Moore, A. G. (2019). Educational advantage and employability of UK university graduates. Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, 9(4).