Embedding internationalisation, and employability through graduate attributes



This paper presents a case study of an institution-wide curriculum refocus project, which included embedding graduate attributes into the curriculum. The co-authors of the paper approached the work from the different perspectives of their individual backgrounds in employability on the one hand and internationalisation on the other. The paper begins with an overview of perceptions of each of those agendas from the ‘other’ side, showing the authors’ trepidation about the agenda of the other then how they can be reconciled.  It continues with presentation of work designed to develop and embed the graduate attribute of a global outlook to illustrate how the agendas of internationalisation and employability can be mutually supportive.

Author Biographies

David Killick

David is Head of Academic Staff Development at Leeds Metropolitan University and a National Teaching Fellow. His work in internationalisation has included establishing international student support programmes, building institutional international exchange partnerships, and publishing staff and student facing resources to promote home: international student integration. His work on curriculum internationalisation established Leeds Met as one of a few ‘early adopters’, and has been widely disseminated.

Laura Dean

Laura is the former Head of Employability at Leeds Metropolitan University and currently works as an independent consultant and staff developer on employability issues. She has a particular interest in the issues for long term employability arising from widening participation programmes. Her work at Leeds Met has focused on embedding employability skills, attitude and knowledge within the curriculum and providing all students with opportunities to engage in work related learning.

The cons and the cons

Employability has become a significant driver across higher education, with work being done nationally, and at subject and institutional level, and with the strong support of national government and its higher education agencies (Dearing, 1997; Browne, 2010 and; and the recent Wilson Review, 2012). Internationalisation has been interpreted by most institutions to mean the recruitment of international students and the development of international campuses and off shore franchised provision, but there has also been a strong ‘bottom-up’ agenda of curriculum internationalisation, often linked to constructs of global citizenship (Bourn, 2010; Jones & Killick, 2007; Leask, 2001; Shiel, 2006). Advocates on both sides may be guilty of ignoring or belittling the other as the agenda of the other is reduced to its most basic elements.  This paper reproduces a dialogue between the authors as a representational mechanism to expose this reductionism.  The writers have worked in different academic/academic-related roles the same institution for several years, crossing paths at times in the same committees or working groups, each with a strong advocacy role.  This dialogue aims to explore some of the tensions between their respective agenda and stems from an institutional restructure in October 2011 which brought the authors into the same department with shared responsibilities for supporting colleagues across the institution in embedding graduate attributes as part of a curriculum refocus exercise. We begin the paper with a representation of their critical perspectives on the work of the other at that time.

D: The focus which continues to be given to the employability agenda is not supported by many in the academic community. Employability skills are no doubt important to our students, but forcing it into the curriculum is reductive, and is turning university degree studies into glorified employee training schemes, “primarily a means of skilling…. Rather than about expanding the minds and developing the capacities of citizens” (Leonard, 2000, p. 182. Cited in Morley, 2011). Corporate interests, not society at large or the students themselves, have become a significant definer of the purposes which drive higher education  (Morley, 2001).

L: You’re right, whilst many older academics don’t see transferable skill development as part of their identity (Henkel, 2000), do they stand at open days and declaim its importance?  The ability to access better jobs is something students are sold on their way into higher education. The sales pitch rhetoric isn’t about being well rounded it’s about being better paid so how ethical is it to deny that it’s something that students do actually want? Putting employability in the curriculum actually puts social equity, not corporate interests first.  Developing employability skills used to depend on participating in extracurricular activities and only certain groups of advantaged students access those opportunities.  There is a wealth of literature showing that traditional, higher social class, male and white students are more likely to access these opportunities. (e.g. Blasko, 2002; Walpole 2003)  Bourdieu and Passeron (1964, 1970 cited in Moreau and Leathwood, 2006) describe the ways in which cultural and social capital affect recruitment and promotion practices: the requirement for cross cultural capability, built through specific extra-curricular, activities is an example of this in action.

One strand of internationalisation: the requirement to have travelled, has twin negative impacts.  In addition to the effect it has on social mobility within a country it creates a modern version of empire in which models and structures specific to one nation are extended and imposed in others via well-meaning volunteering; the export of experts to build new infrastructure and global mobility generally.  Its advocates focus on the benefits to the participating individual, sidestepping the impact on the receiving communities.

D: When the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) took responsibility for higher education, the ripples of concern were already washing through the academy in terms of the perception of the role of our universities, adding to mounting uncertainties and insecurities about academic and disciplinary identities (Di Napoli & Barnett, 2008; Jessop, McNab, & Gubby, 2012). The employability agenda which they champion is now impacting on the discourse in raising the notion of the student-as-customer, and we learn that HEFCE is “taking on a new role as consumer champion for students” (BIS, 2011, p. 6). It seems that the discourse and its implications have already taken a firm hold at institutional level in many universities:

“Sadly many universities have embraced the student-as-consumer model. For example the 1994 Group of UK-based universities has adopted the idea that the customer is always right and that flattering them is the way forward” (Furedi, 2011, p. 3).

So, we are to have customers demanding rights, and we are promising them that a university education is about employability. How long before we find that the university is to be held responsible if the student-customer finds herself unemployed (so by implication unemployable)? The economic turmoil marking the first two decades of the twenty-first century has already cleaved a real gap between graduate employability rhetoric and reality. It is difficult to see how UK students will achieve anything like the level of employment to which they have been encouraged to aspire as global markets and labour sites shift towards the emerging economies. In the main, our home grown graduates remain home birds in terms of their will and their capabilities to seek to make their lives in the wider world.

L:  It’s true that marketization has been seen as an issue for at least the last twenty years e.g.  Fairclough’s (1993) critical discourse analysis and probably before that, but is that linked to skilling people to access opportunities?  The role of universities does change, and developing transferable skills may be conceptualised as an ‘adaptation’ or change from core business (e.g. Sabri, 2010) but in reality universities are grounded in training for the professions, however dirty that may seem.  Whilst we see negativity towards programmes such as golf management there’s less ire directed at medicine or law which are held up as examples of self-regulating professions which need no external oversight (e.g. Sabrina, 2010).  The snobbery about job focused skill development is snobbery about types of jobs and the status they have, not about skill development per se.  Employability development is about contextualising the higher education experience too;   it’s much more than skills development.  Focusing on employability reduces the likelihood of the much articulated fear of litigation by the unemployed.  Firstly, by giving graduates the skills to live and work in different ways, and not be dependent on an employer, e.g. working in a cooperative.  Secondly, by providing them with the necessary knowledge of the global economic and social context of labour markets.  Without this background we risk a generation who, due to market factors, are unemployed; due to lack of knowledge and skills, are unable to visualise another life; and due to our failure to provide them with context, perceive themselves to be at fault for their unemployment.  Garsten & Jacobsson, (2003) and  Moreau and Leathwood, 2006 both  argue there has actually been a discourse change around unemployment so it is now regarded as a personal failing to be unemployed rather than a product of societal or economic factors: employability development mitigates this effect.

D: The pressing concerns which I have identified are part of what many see as a broader neoliberal agenda to shift higher education away from something for the public social good, with a legitimate concern for advancing social justice, and into yet another activity devoted to feeding the machine of global capital:

…universities, as the pre-eminent knowledge organisations, have become the focus of much state interest, activity and the exercise of power and can be characterised as performing three functions. First, they can produce the knowledge that underpins economic growth. Second, universities can effectively produce the worker/consumer citizens that Foucault would refer to as ‘docile bodies’ (Foucault, 1977) on which such growth depends. And third, they represent important areas of profitable business opportunity in a globalised HE environment (Boden & Nedeva, 2010, p. 40).

L: So you argue the purpose of higher education is for social good, and we’re moving away from that?  Another lens is that higher education has been a means of legitimising social inequality, reproducing class  and a mechanism for preventing downward social mobility by the middle classes (Machins and Vignoles, 2004). Ross (2003, p22) argues universities have “always … been powerful agents of socialization”.  If by social equity we mean equal access to resources, the concept of power is key.  Fraser argues that power has three specific dimensions: socio-economic (redistributive), cultural (recognitive) and political (representative) (1997, 2009).  Not all of these dimensions can be impacted through increased involvement in HE.  Though it can be argued that increased participation leads to increased involvement and therefore positions of power via advanced standing in the labour market. However, graduates from lower socioeconomic classes are systematically disadvantaged in the labour market and consequently rarely access that power (e.g. Brown and Hesketh 2004; Panel on Fair Access to the Professions 2009; AGR, 1999; Smith, McKnight and Naylor (2000; Leathwood & Hutchings, 2003; Murray and Robinson, 2001; Hesketh 2000).

Putting employability into the curriculum at least partially levels the playing field for the large numbers of widening participation students we have successfully attracted in, though graduate employers do still have a propensity for valuing activities only the richest students can participate in, such as gap years.  Internationalisation is far more of a concern for social equity as rich nations charge fees to poorer ones which mean that only the children of the elite there can participate.  It leads to a brain drain from poorer nations to richer ones, particularly in areas such as medicine: whilst it might be considered too unsavoury to consider training health professionals is part of higher education, it’s acceptable to recruit those trained overseas leaving poorer nations with poorer healthcare.  Internationalisation in higher education is not about a social good but about capitalising on potential markets: operating as the businesses they are.

D: That is certainly the perception which many hold. But internationalisation, as understood by its more thoughtful advocates, is not about mobility (inbound or outbound), but about building everybody’s university experience to better equip them to make their way ethically in the complexities of a globalising world. A further issue with employability is the impact this agenda has on the study of the discipline itself. Surely, many students still come to university to study a degree in a subject. They choose to do Physics or English Literature, not to study how to be a good little employee. Of course, the more we are pushed (and funded) to evidence the capacity to provide oven-ready graduates for specific jobs, the more job-specific degree programmes emerge. Some recognise how limiting this could be in terms of transferable capabilities which will equip them for an unpredictable and fast-moving world:

“There is a rationalist, modernist certainty embedded in these employability discourses that might, ironically, be out of step with the turbulence of the market forces that employability is supposed to serve” (Morley, 2001, p132).

How ill-conceived is the notion that we should be about preparing students for jobs which may not even yet exist in supercomplex futures (Barnett, 2000) whose features we cannot now even imagine (Appadurai, 1997, 2006/1966)?

L: Employability development is not about preparation for jobs, it is about transferability and adaptability: it’s about preparation for life. Unfortunately the employability discourse is often conflated with employment, and guidance professionals conflated with information providers.  Never mind the subject, where’s the space for education and personal development? Surely, many students still come to university to learn and grow. They choose to do Physics or English Literature, as a means of education not to collect a time- and space- bound fixed reference body of information in one subject area.  To learn how to critically engage with their environment and economy, not just to progress into graduate employment (if they entered with the right connections), and to reflect on how they want to engage with the world – that is what higher education is truly about, and what employability development provides.

D & L: So, thank goodness at least one of the agendas crowding out the higher education landscape is concerned with helping students develop as people who can make their way in the globalising world when they leave, and can take an informed and critical view of their discipline and whatever professions they move into. 

Joining forces

While we did not always find the internationalisation and the employability agendas exactly contiguous, in working together it was not difficult for us to see an emerging set of joint aspirations for our students. It was interesting to note how several of these also reflected strongly a commitment to inclusive education and the kind of work being promoted from Equality and Diversity perspectives (Caruana & Ploner, 2010). Five statements can serve to capture areas of strong synergy.

  • All students need to be able to communicate respectfully with the diversity of people they are likely to encounter in the wider world.
  • This means having a measure of understanding regarding who they are themselves, what their own values are, and why it’s important to recognise these things in others.
  • It means being able to take a critical stance towards how things are, and to see things as they appear from other perspectives.
  • They have to see how what they study, and what they do as specialists in that subject fits into the wider world.
  • They have to recognise the possible value of doing things differently, and to recognise their responsibilities when they take decisions which affect other people.
  • Recognise the impact of the other on oneself and have the ability to attribute responsibility and agency appropriately.

To achieve any of this, the first thing universities and lecturers need to ensure is that they are providing a level playing field for everyone. Social justice and educational equity issues aside, equal status for all participants has long been recognised as an essential element if cross-cultural interactions are to serve to reduce rather than enhance prejudice (Allport, 1979/1954). Although we do not have the space to explore this in depth in this article, working with learning outcomes as described below does lead us to question how equitable they might be in terms of the knowledge and epistemologies they privilege. Our socially and culturally diverse classrooms and campuses are microcosms of that wider world for which we are preparing our students. This requires inclusive environments where all students are equally valued, not only by the staff but by each other, but it also means challenging students to work across their limited and limiting socio-cultural borders. We can probably not expect students, at a time in their lives when their own identities are struggling to emerge (Baxter Magolda, 2001, 2009), to even want to start working with people they see as different, especially if we don’t model that kind of stance in the ways we shape the content and the delivery of the formal and the informal curriculum (Leask, 2009). Although this paper focusses on the formal curriculum, we fully recognise that this work can only be truly effective if it takes place in campus and institutional cultures which reflect its ethos (Killick, 2012).  In the rest of this paper we set out a practical example of how the two perspectives were brought together by embedding the graduate attribute of a global outlook.

Institutional context and approach to embedding ‘A Global Outlook’ 

Leeds Metropolitan University had already undertaken significant curriculum development in both internationalisation and employability. For example, on the internationalisation agenda, a five-year institution-wide project had involved course teams reviewing the content and delivery aspects of their courses against a set of guidelines on cross-cultural capability and global perspectives (Jones & Killick, 2007; Killick, 2006). Employability embedding had piggy-backed on the QAA requirement for personal development planning and had focused heavily on teaching students to use reflection.

When the authors began working together, the institution was about to embark upon an undergraduate curriculum refocus exercise. This involved several structural changes and the adoption of three graduate attributes. These attributes were seen as a route to enhancing students’ graduate employment prospects. This paper focusses on the graduate attribute of ‘a global outlook’, but the approach to embedding ‘being enterprising’ and ‘digital literacy’ was the same as that described below.

A cross-disciplinary group of university Teacher Fellows met informally several times to work upon defining the global outlook attribute and then producing guidelines (Killick, 2011) to support course teams to embed the attribute within the subject across all levels of study. It was clear from much previous work on key skills and professional development planning in our own institution, and from critically reviewing work on graduate attributes and capabilities in Australia (Barrie, 2006; Oliver, 2012) that embedding the attribute within subject modules had the potential to be more effective than generalised high-level institutional aspirations or marginalising it to dedicated, but peripheral, modules. This approach was also consistent with our earlier internationalisation work, where we had similarly argued that cross-cultural capability needed to be located within the student’s disciplinary and professional contexts. It was decided that the strongest and most visible driver for embedding the attribute would be learning outcomes. Explicit visibility of aspects of the attribute within course and module learning outcomes would, through the alignment component of the constructive alignment process (Biggs & Tang, 2011), ensure it was also embedded in content, delivery and assessment. We were mindful that students are not always fully aware of or able to articulate the capabilities or ‘soft skills’ which they acquire through their university education, and we felt that more explicit visibility of these within the wording of learning outcomes would help them also in this regard.

A Global Outlook – Definition and Sample Learning Outcomes

Mindful, in particular, that all students need to be able to live and work in diverse local and international contexts, we broadly defined the attribute of a global outlook as: “enabling effective and responsible engagement in a multicultural and globalising world” (Killick, 2011, p.4). The attribute set out two inter-connected dimensions, Inclusivity and Global Relevance. Briefly, in terms of the constructive alignment of practice, these refer to:

Inclusivity: Meeting diverse needs AND affording others equal respect 

  • valuing diverse perspectives and experiences brought into the course (whether in informal discussions, in seminars, or in assessed work, for example);
  • enabling students also to see the value in these;
  • providing meaningful integration into class/group activities (i.e. avoiding ‘tokenism’); and
  • building sensitivity towards/ acceptance of/respect for different ways of working together.

Globally relevant: The subject is being studied by students who (will) carry out their lives, in a globally interconnected world 

  • ensuring the student sees how their discipline and the professions to which it relates fit into this rapidly evolving global context;
  • equipping them with attributes such as cross-cultural capability and global perspectives; and
  • enabling them to ‘make their way’ responsibly in this world, professionally and personally and to understand the global impacts on them as individuals

Examples of the kind of ways in which these would relate to a student’s discipline were provided, and course teams were invited to consider how topics and issues within their subject might be substituted in the [brackets]:

  • how does [this issue or action] look to or impact upon somebody living in a different country, on a different continent, etc?
  • how does [this issue or action] look to or impact upon somebody living locally who has a different belief system, etc?
  • how is [this issue or action] impacted by concerns or events in other global contexts?
  • how will the way I respond to [this issue or action] impact upon the way others see it/respond to it?
  • how does my own culture represent, judge, value [this issue or action]?
  • how is [this issue or action] dealt with by relevant institutions, industries, governance or political structures elsewhere?
  • what are the practical, ethical, social, professional and personal consequences of [this issue or action] for a diverse local and/or global community?

It can be seen that these in themselves can provide a source for learning outcomes appropriate to a range of levels. Taking just the first as an example:

Students will be able to:


discuss                          how [this issue or action] impacts upon

analysis                         somebody living on a different continent

critically evaluate

Working with a cross-disciplinary group of colleagues to draft the guidelines enabled some very rich discussions as we worked to modify existing module learning outcomes so they might embed aspects of the global outlook attribute. Five examples are given below. It will be seen that none involve complex rewording, but this should not be taken to indicate that the task was easily achieved. We would also argue that although the changes involve only a word or two, the impact on the content, the delivery and the assessment of the module, and therefore the potential change in the students’ conception of their discipline and of their own capabilities to make their way in the world is significant. The examples illustrate how modifications might be achieved even where initially a course team may feel it is not necessary or not relevant.

In the first example, the original learning outcome would legitimately be seen as having an “international” dimension. Students will be able to:

analyse market opportunities in the international business environment.

However, this does not make any explicit requirement that the student considers markets beyond those operating in very similar international contexts (i.e. western, wealthy, post-industrial). A small modification necessitates a more complex appreciation of global markets, the examination of which has the potential to raise awareness of the differential impacts of global capital. Students will be able to:

analyse market opportunities in two contrasting international business environments.

In the second example, the learning outcome can be seen to embrace the notion of developing an ethical appreciation of the subject which is congruent with the global outlook attribute. Students will be able to:

debate the ethical responsibilities of science in society with reference to current issues.

However, it leaves open the interpretation of ‘society’. Although the course team would likely expect a student to interpret this widely, there is no explicit requirement that this should be so. Again, a small modification incorporates something of the ‘inclusivity’ dimension of the attribute. Students will be able to:

debate the ethical responsibilities of science with reference to current issues in a multicultural society.

The third example, similarly, seeks to make explicit that the subject has cultural dimensions which might not be considered without the modification. Students will be able to:

illustrate how different kinds of bodies [for example, fat, thin, old, impaired, sporty, ‘fit’], and their various meanings, are socially constructed

Students will be able to:

illustrate how different kinds of bodies [for example, fat, thin, old, impaired, sporty, ‘fit’], and their various meanings, are socially constructed by different communities

Several subject areas rightly claim that their focus is necessarily upon practice in a single national context, so learning outcomes will seek to capture this as in the following example. Students will be able to:

identify and describe issues which have been created and debated due to changes in the modern British education system since 1988

Other obvious examples might be British Law, NHS sponsored practice courses, or Accounting. However, arguably, a student can better gain a critical understanding of, and a questioning stance towards current issues and practice in the UK context for which they are preparing if they have developed some understandings of how their professional area is enacted in other contexts. A modification which extends the global relevance dimension of their global outlook, then, also offers an opportunity to enhance students’ understandings of more local practice. Students will be able to:

identify and describe key issues which have been created and debated due to changes in the modern British education system since 1988 with reference to contrasting practice in one other national context

The final example is rather more generic, since it applies more to a skill than to the subject content per se. While some would argue that skills in a foreign language should be a necessary requirement for all graduates going out into a globalising world, this is not something which most UK  universities can expect or achieve in the context of a school education system which does not prepare everybody with language abilities. This may be lamentable, but it does not leave us with no options. Given the perhaps unstoppable hegemonic spread of English as the global lingua franca, we might at least consider helping our students to make their communications both inclusive and globally fit-for-purpose. This might be achieved through modifications such as this:

Students will be able to:

give an oral presentation of the their key findings to an audience of subject specialists

Students will be able to:

give an oral presentation of the their key findings to an audience of subject specialists whose first language may not be English


Employability and internationalisation of the curriculum are most frequently addressed as different agendas in higher education, as explored in the opening dialogue between the authors. However, we have sought to demonstrate that, while their overarching objectives and underpinning principles may, indeed, not be contiguous, advocates on both sides can find that working together (engaging with the Other) can reveal common ground when it comes to the kinds of attributes which students need if they are to make their way among the diverse others, and within the diverse contexts which constitute their local and global futures. Graduate attributes are finding their place in UK higher education, and explorations of their underpinnings may offer a space in which such dialogues can take place . International experience suggests that if graduate attributes are to have impact, they need to be clearly articulated and firmly embedded in the learning experiences and assessment requirements of students. Taking learning outcomes as a key driver of the curriculum, we have demonstrated how the graduate attribute of ‘a global outlook’ is being embedded at subject level in undergraduate programmes across the disciplines of one institution. From an internationalisation and an employability perspective, we believe that this work has the potential to better prepare our students within their subject studies to meet the challenges they will face, and that the process of making adjustments to existing learning outcomes offers a transferrable model for advancing both agendas.


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using kindle.com may incur charges)