Education: Apply for a passport to employment: A 'record of achievement' can be a valuable asset to a graduate entering the world of work, says Ngaio Crequer

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The Independent Online
When Jane Merriman presents herself to an employer she will have a strong CV, a good (she hopes) degree - and a statement that says far more about her than either of these. Jane, studying chemistry at the University of North London, is one of a growing band of students who will take with her a 'record of achievement'.

Although their form can vary enormously, usually students will attend sessions on work-related skills, such as teamwork and communications, and leave with documents, such as CVs, prepared individually under the guidance of the lecturers. These describe their non-academic skills and experience, and could act as 'passports to work' for the students.

Jane Merriman says: 'At first I thought this would not be relevant to me. Then I started to write down what my skills were, what I like doing and what I expect to achieve. I am now learning to do things I thought I could not do. I am poor at interviews because you never say all the things you want to say. This process helps me to express myself.'

Records of achievement are commonplace in schools but are new to the university system. The University of North London decided to offer them after finding that many high-achieving students who were mature, from ethnic minorities or from lower socio-economic groups were not obtaining suitable jobs.

Dr Trevor Joscelyne, head of educational development at the university, says: 'Employers often had age limits, or did not see these people fitting into their culture.' Students themselves sometimes contributed to the problem. 'They lacked confidence, or they lacked experience either in their family or circle of friends.'

By 1996, the university plans to offer all students some form of recording their extra achievement, despite the pressure on resources. 'We have to ask ourselves: what are the essential elements in a mass higher education system?' says Dr Joscelyne. 'I cannot guarantee students a job,' he adds. 'All I can do is help them to think constructively about the strengths they have.'

Oxford Brookes University aims to offer all students in future the option of studying communication, teamwork and problem-solving as well as their own subjects. Professor Alan Jenkins, of the educational methods unit, says: 'Universities are very good at information and theory. But they do not emphasise reflection. They do not invite a student to ask: 'Where am I and what am I planning?' '

But is it essential for students to show that they have the extra skills? And is it the role of universities to provide them? Professor Jenkins says: 'It is new territory for staff. It is a culture change. Many staff see it as an increase in their workload, and possibly an attack on their disciplines. We do not want to drown staff and students in paperwork, but we can bring to employers a more rounded view of our students.'

It is not all plain sailing. Paul Stevens, who organises first-year programmes in electrical engineering at Bradford University, ran an experiment. He and his colleagues selected 12 students coming into the electrical engineering department. Most had experienced records of achievement at school. They asked students to produce their own profile, and reflect upon their capabilities and how they could improve their skills.

''The less able students asked, what was the point of it? They only saw one purpose: getting good degrees. Most had had a poor experience of records of achievement at school. They had felt then it was a waste of time. This was a minority view, but it led to apathy. We failed to sell the idea.' Students could see the purpose of putting in more hours to improve their maths, but less in improving their 'profile' as potential employees.

At the University of Central Lancashire, Robert Bray runs a course called Planning Your Career, taken by more than 200 students last year. 'We give students a chance to reflect on what they have got out of their education,' he says. 'We tell students about practical skills that employers are looking for. We ask students to assess those skills. Employers are looking for the ability to work in teams, a person who is computer literate, someone who has good presentational skills, and an employee who can present a report.'

The course is offered to undergraduates in their second or third year. If they take it, it counts towards their eventual degree. It runs over 12 weeks and takes about 14 per cent of the total study time in one year. The course is designed to enable students to assess for themselves their own aptitudes, experiences and characteristics.

At the beginning of the course students were impatient to come to grips with the more practical aspects - how best to fill in an application form, and how to conduct themselves at an interview. But by the end it was the self-assessment, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, that was the most valued prize.

Would a student with a record of achievement really win out against another student with a better degree? Dr Joscelyne says that thinking employers doing their job correctly and matching skills to posts would be unwise to reject people who clearly know exactly what they want and can do.

Andrew Leleux, development and training manager for BR's Rail Freight Distribution, is convinced that the schemes work. 'In a nutshell, it provides for the employer a deeper insight into a student's capabilities. We have a better understanding of what the student has achieved.'

This is echoed by the CBI. Margaret Murray, head of education policy, says, 'Employers want individuals with core skills who are keen to learn life-long. It is not the document that employers love, but the effect of that document. These are people in the habit of assessing themselves.'

(Photograph omitted)