By Jeanette Ashton and Paven Basuita
There is a wealth of literature on the importance of including employability skills in Higher Education (HE) (Tibby and Norton, 2020, Department for Education, 2017; Knight and Mantz, 2003). At the same time, there has been significant academic criticism of HE’s employability agenda (Morley, 2001; Rooney and Rawlinson, 2016; Tomlinson, 2012). At the University of Sussex, embedding employability is a strategic priority, set within the ‘Sussex 2025 World Readiness and Employability Strategy’ (Huns, 2022). Within Sussex Law School (SLS), there are many opportunities to develop practical legal skills, our employability focus for this piece, however these are largely co-curricular and those which are within the curriculum, primarily through our Clinical Legal Education module, are optional with limited numbers. This piece explores the findings from a follow-on study on a peer assisted learning project within SLS, and considers the possibility that a failure to embed practical legal skills into the curriculum from the outset of the student journey, may deepen existing inequalities between students, both during their time with us and post-graduation.
We organised two focus groups of students to evaluate our pilot of a client interviewing workshop, which we ran in Spring 2022. Client interviewing is an important practical legal skill with relevance beyond legal practice, and is a well-established co-curricular programme for second year students and finalists in SLS (skills competitions). The pilot project involved recruiting second and third-year students as facilitators to design and deliver a client interviewing skills workshop for first year students, to extend opportunities for the development of client interviewing skills. In evaluating the pilot, we spoke to five students who participated in the workshop and four of the student facilitators about their experiences, including their views on whether practical legal skills, such as client interviewing, should be embedded into the curriculum.
Findings from the participant focus group
To embed or not to embed: The participants (five first year law students) agreed that client interviewing should be embedded in the curriculum, for example by including it as a seminar activity, rather than only being offered as a co-curricular activity. Alluding to inclusivity, one noted “the type of people who go are just the type of people who would seek these types of things out anyway.” Expanding on this, they felt that students may not think they will benefit, and so do not sign up for co-curricular opportunities. However, they felt that students are likely to benefit, and that participating will help build confidence and encourage engagement with other opportunities. The participants also thought that client interviewing could be used to help students better understand and apply the legal content of a module.
To assess or not to assess: The participants were divided regarding whether client interviewing skills should be assessed. One argument in favour of assessing was that it was a way of evidencing competency in that skill, which would be beneficial for job applications. Concerns raised were that scoring poorly in such an assessment could be detrimental to a student’s confidence, both in terms of academic ability and professional pathways. Participants noted the value of receiving constructive feedback but not necessarily in an assessment context, with one feeling that skills competency is too subjective to assess fairly. This may be partly due to students being more familiar with traditional assessment methods.
Findings from the facilitator focus group
To embed or not to embed: The facilitators (four final year law students), all agreed that practical legal skills, such as client interviewing, should be embedded into the curriculum. They felt that client interviewing skills were essential for students wishing to become lawyers, but also useful for non-law careers. Another reason was that students need to start developing these skills before undertaking professional assessments such as the Solicitors Qualifying Exam.
Embedding was seen as fairer and more inclusive. The facilitators felt that embedding would give all students a chance to engage and would help them to build their confidence, particularly with work experience and job applications. As one noted, “you’re gonna have to use soft skills at some point and I think not having them is … setting students up for failure in a way.” They also felt that embedding skills would help give students an insight into whether a legal career was right for them, before they committed to expensive postgraduate vocational study.
To assess or not to assess: The facilitators were unequivocal that practical legal skills should be formally assessed and rejected suggestions that this should not be done because of ‘push back from students’. They suggested that including some practical skills assessments would increase the variety of assessment modes and ultimately be more inclusive. They stressed the importance of building this in from the outset. Unlike the participant group, the facilitators raised no concerns about the subjectivity of skills assessment and felt that skills could be taught and assessed in a fair way.
The broader context
The students were unanimous that employability skills should be embedded in the curriculum. Our findings reflect research undertaken by others, such as Nicholson and Johnston (2021) who found that students placed most emphasis on the instrumental value of their law degrees, particularly in terms of qualification as a lawyer and employability enhancement.
The responses of the facilitators demonstrate that they consider the responsibility for helping students to develop their employability skills lies with the law school. This arguably reflects the narrative promoted by universities, namely that the purpose of university education is primarily employability (Nicholson and Johnston, 2021). However, when it comes to students’ experiences of studying law there appears to be a disconnect between student expectations of what a law degree will offer and the reality. As one of our facilitators told us “when I did law, I thought I’d at least be doing some sort of legal practice stuff.”
Whilst the students who took part in our project undoubtedly benefitted, many more students did not take part and so did not benefit. The workshop was offered to all of our first-year students – a cohort of approximately 380 – but only around 20 students attended on the day. The workshop took place just before a period of industrial action, which may have been a factor. Research shows that lower-income and working-class students are more reticent to engage in extra-curricular activities and this may be due to paid work and responsibilities outside university including caring responsibilities (Bathmaker et al, 2013; Purcell et al, 2013; Hordósy and Clark, 2018). By offering these opportunities outside compulsory teaching activities, there is a danger that only those able to participate and/or those who are already sufficiently motivated, will benefit. This risks deepening inequalities between students, both at university and beyond, as students compete for jobs, in legal and other fields.
Concluding thoughts and challenges
Our study was small scale and whether the participating students’ views are representative more widely would need further research. Another limitation of our study was that the students participating had voluntarily signed up to take part in a client interviewing workshop and it is therefore unsurprising that they placed a high value on employability skills. That being said, we would suggest that embedding employability skills into the legal curriculum is the most equitable and inclusive approach and could go some way towards addressing the barriers to engaging with co-curricular activities for some students.
Including employability skills should not be at the expense of legal academic skills. Rather, the two can be combined. For example, a seminar activity could involve interviewing a ‘client’, defining their problem and giving them advice. This would help students understand and apply the law and demonstrate to them that there may be more than one solution to a legal problem.
In terms of assessing employability skills, whilst we acknowledge the concerns raised by a minority of the students in our focus groups, including employability skills without assessing them may mean that students don’t engage. We think that anxiety around assessing practical skills could be managed through careful scaffolding and formative opportunities. Alternatively, activities which help develop employability skills could be linked to an assessment, without being directly assessed, for example revision activities on a topic that will be examined.
Embedding practical legal skills should be, from what our students tell us, an important consideration in module/course design. Helping students to develop these key skills will provide them with, in the words of one of our student facilitators, a “stepping stone…before they enter the working world” and we suggest is a change worth making.
Bathmaker, AM, Ingram, N and Waller, R (2013) ‘Higher education, social class and the mobilisation of capitals: recognising and playing the game’ British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34, (5/6): 723-743 https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2013.816041
Department for Education (2017) Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework Specification https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/658490/Teaching_Excellence_and_Student_Outcomes_Framework_Specification.pdf
Hordósy, R and Clark, T (2018) ‘Beyond the compulsory: A critical exploration of the experiences of extracurricular activity and employability in a northern red brick university’, Research in Post-compulsory Education, 23 (3): 414-435 https://doi.org/10.1080/13596748.2018.1490094
Huns, E (2022) ‘Employability Blog Series: Driving change through strategy – a case study from the University of Sussex’ (Higher Education Policy Institute, 6 May 2022) <www.hepi.ac.uk/2022/05/06/employability-blog-series-driving-change-through-strategy-a-case-study-from-the-university-of-sussex/#:~:text=The%20Sussex%20World%20Readiness%20and%20Employability%20Strategy%20has,Strategic%20objective%201%3A%20Embedding%20employability%20into%20the%20curriculum>
Knight, P and Mantz, Y (2003) Learning, Curriculum and Employability in Higher Education, Taylor & Francis Group, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/suss/detail.action?docID=181920
Morley, L (2001) ‘Producing New Workers: Quality, equality and employability in higher education’, Quality in Higher Education, 7:2, 131-138, https://doi.org/10.1080/13538320120060024
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