In this post, Neelam Thapar and Vanessa Airth reflect upon social justice as a strategic imperative at their university. I found out about their work at the AGCAS Heads of Service Conference (UK) and was really struck with what they are doing. It is a rare example of a UK university explicitly addressing social justice in their strategy and this directly impacting Careers and Work-based Learning.
Neelam Thapar is Head of Careers and Employability at London Metropolitan University. Vanessa Airth is Head of Work Based Learning, Policy and Practice at London Metropolitan University.
In this blog post, we will be sharing the journey we have taken in Careers and Work based learning at London Metropolitan University over the last ten months (during the pandemic). This has led to new collaborative models of strategic working across the university in the delivery of social justice.
London Metropolitan University is in the top eight socially inclusive universities (Times 2020) and committed to fostering an equitable and inclusive community. It is central to the ethos of the University that every person deserves a chance to transform his or her life and the lives of others through higher education. Our demographics include 80% of students who are mature, 63% from Black and minority ethnic communities and 17% with a known disability. Our students have hugely complex lives and London Metropolitan University has built itself on working with communities, closing opportunity gaps, raising aspirations and transforming lives. It is this ethos that is embedded in our new strategy, which was launched in November 2019
Just before the pandemic, a cross-institutional group of 30 staff, students and Students’ Union representatives came together to develop our Education for Social Justice Framework which had been inspired by the success of HEFCE funded-research which demonstrated the impact of an inclusive curriculum in narrowing the awarding gaps for Black, Asian and ethnic minority students. The work for our Education for Social Justice Framework was in its infancy as the first Lockdown happened and grew momentum. It now forms part of the learning and teaching strategy developing a values-led framework, which combines principles of inclusive pedagogy to embed strategies that enable the university to be a bigger agent of social change reflecting the mission of London Metropolitan University.
The Framework is ensuring our curricula and practice (including preparing students for employment and life), align with the principles of equity, and that students can see themselves reflected in what they learn, and we are responsive to the challenges facing London and its communities. Integral to careers and employability has been the Inclusive Leadership part of the framework, which seeks to mobilise students to become ambassadors of inclusion so that in their future careers, they have a deeper understanding of progressing equality within their industries and are critically aware where the invisible barriers are. Both of us have been involved in the roll out of training our teams on pilot courses and creating resources to help embed into their courses.
Careers Education Framework
In March 2020, nobody could have predicted the impact of a pandemic and the changes that were going to be needed ranging from staff not used to delivering on line, students experiencing digital poverty and changes in the labour market that affected our student demographics disproportionately such as working part time in the very industries that were experiencing such turbulence. When the first lockdown happened, we had to revamp our careers and work based learning provision totally and we were commissioned by the deputy vice chancellor to create a new working model for Careers Education that had accountability.
This led to our new Careers Education Framework based on good practice in the University and the sector that would provide a holistic approach to embedding employability. This is delivered by a collaboration between, Careers and Employability and Work Based Learning Teams, Schools, employers and students. The emphasis has been to provide inclusive opportunities to develop knowledge, skills, experiences that enable our students to move on to successful transitions and graduate outcomes. It can be complicated to build careers education into each course proposition from the start of the student lifecycle and the Framework gave us the opportunity to work with courses in an incremental sign-posted journey, at each level, using careers and employability support to scaffold work based learning.
Crucially, academics, students and employers informed the framework and this was coupled with resources to help course teams to embed it according to their discipline. Already in the first term, through the Careers Education Framework, this has seen a 23% increase in the amount of careers education curriculum talks that careers consultants have delivered in the curriculum. The usage of employability online resources has changed dramatically in the six months compared to the same timeframe with a 357% increase which has been a sign of the impact of collaboration across the university.
Work Based Learning
The new Strategic plan and the inclusion of Work Bearning Learning (WBL) within the Careers Education Framework, provided an opportunity to refresh the WBL offering. A key consideration was how WBL can incorporate social justice in relation to both students and employers. The scaffolding the Framework provides, leads students to consider their career aspirations and values and to practise recruitment skills early in their course to apply for work placements. It aims to help those who may be inclined to leave their career planning until much later and for students to participate in real-world activities that seek to address injustice and disadvantage.
WBL (accredited work experience) modules were initially introduced as a compulsory element within the undergraduate curriculum in 2016. The purpose was to provide time-poor students, who have many life demands and/or are without access to professional networks, to gain exposure to a relevant workplace environment. The assessment process encourages them to build self-efficacy via self-reflection, to recognise their personal development and employability gains and articulate these to progress towards their career goals. Evidence shows students from lower socio-economic and other marginalised cultural, social or political groups often have barriers to engaging with beneficial work experience (Moores et al 2013, NCUB 2016). Furthermore, work placement experience has been shown to positively improve degree outcomes for BAME students (Moores et al 2013).
The explicit introduction of social justice into the WBL agenda has a twofold nature. One, through consideration of our students’ diverse lifestyles. Examples include nine different categories of work based learning (all adhering to the national HE classification of WBL), including ‘traditional’ work placements, student advisory clinics, and live, client briefs. In relation to social justice focused placements, in the last year, we have cemented a partnership with a fledgling social enterprise who are proactive in our local London boroughs to improve the lives of residents. This year, they have provided over 90 remote working placements focussing on fostering a fair society.
Secondly, students are encouraged to undertake work experience which has social benefit. A new WBL module was launched as part of the new London Met Lab: Empowering London strategy. The Lab aims to tackle inequalities facing London, improve people’s lives and deliver social justice by using the expertise of staff and students working in partnership with the local community. The initiative has identified Six ‘Challenges’: Social Wealth, Poverty and Deprivation, Discrimination, Health Improvement, The Environment and Crime. The module, Empowering London: Working within the Community, provides students with an initial grounding in these Six Challenges, an understanding of what it means to be a values driven individual and leader and to consider inclusivity in all their employment (and wider) relationships. For the second part of the academic year, students undertake up to 70 hours with a not-for-profit organisation which positively impacts one or more of the Challenges.
When reflecting back over the last 12 months, we are struck by how quickly we have been able to move so many strategic and operational initiatives forward in the midst of a pandemic. Through collaboration and collective action across the University and externally, we have been able to implement an approach that encourages students through careers education to consider how their lived experiences, knowledge and transferable skills can have a positive impact on society.
Neelam Thapar is Head of Careers and Employability at London Metropolitan University. She has 28 years’ experience in HE in placements, careers guidance, embedding employability and employer engagement. She has an MSc in Education and Training, and Diplomas in CEIAG, Coaching and NLP. She has been a trustee of the health charity; UK Thalassaemia Society and is now an Ambassador for the charity.
Vanessa Airth is Head of Work Based Learning, Policy and Practice at London Metropolitan University. She has worked in Higher Education since 2001 and has 16 years’ experience of developing and delivering work based learning/employability programmes. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and holds a Master’s Degree in Learning and Teaching in HE.
You can connect with us on Twitter @LondonMetCareer, @vanessalouisea, @Neelamthapar