Experience is the key to employability

Chris Green
Thursday 19 June 2008 11:09 BST

Students eager to gain a postgraduate qualification in business in the UK are, for the moment at least, spoilt for choice. Whether you’re after a Masters degree in marketing or a postgraduate diploma in e-commerce, the sheer number of universities offering these types of courses means that finding the right one should be relatively easy.

In fact, with new degrees springing up every year, your biggest problem might be deciding which of them is most likely to give you the extra career boost you need. One thing you’d be silly to ignore when choosing a course is the amount of interaction its students have with real businesses. It has become increasingly common for postgraduate qualifications to include a practical element, designed to give their students a taste of the real world.

Some universities have given their business courses the desired interactive twist by offering elective work placement modules, in which participants carry out some work for a company and are assessed based on their results. After an initial discussion with their clients, the students must produce a report which they then hand over by means of a formal presentation. “Right from the outset we wanted to give the course a really good practical base, so the students would have the opportunity to practise the high-order techniques they need to succeed in business,” says Paul Gaffney, director of the MSc in business and enterprise at Oxford Brookes University. “One of the main thrusts of all of our Masters programmes has got to be employability: giving them something tangible to put on their CVs and enhancing their chances of getting a job. So far, it’s been very fruitful for them.”

Universities and businesses can find themselves working together through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), a Government-funded initiative whereby the two run a mutually beneficial project within a company. The university is approached by a company looking to make a major strategic change but lacking the funds to employ a top consultant. The university then recruits an “associate”, who might be a former student, to carry out the project under academic supervision. All three parties gain something from the work, most notably the associate, who will have overseen a major piece of research and made themselves highly employable into the bargain.

“It’s great because it ticks all the boxes,” says Elspeth McFarlane, head of consultancy and corporate learning at Oxford Brookes, which has been involved with a number of highly successful KTPs. “It gives universities the opportunity to deal with a company directly, and sometimes even publish something based on the research which has been done.”

The University of Hertfordshire’s business school is a good example of an institution intent on modernising its teaching by including practical learning on top of theory. The school already invites guest speakers from the business world to visit and engage with its students, and a few of the brightest participants are occasionally invited to work at the university’s Graduate Consulting Unit after completing their degrees. But there are also plans to set up a permanent link with a company for all students to use as a real-time case study.

Diane Proudlove, programme tutor of the school’s MSc in strategic marketing, says that she doesn’t want her students to forsake their textbooks entirely. But, she admits, it’s impossible to overstress the importance of having real-world experience when it comes to modern business. “It sounds like I’m telling the students that there’s no point in learning theory, which is a difficult thing for an academic to say,” she says. “But sometimes it’s hard for people whose only experience of marketing has been through an undergraduate course to come up with fresh ideas. They need to look at the problems encountered by real businesses to discover that there’s not always a right and a wrong answer. So I think the future for these courses lies in more practical learning.”

Case study

Rikke Duus, 25, graduated with an MSc in strategic marketing from the University of Hertfordshire’s business school in 2006

I worked at the graduate consulting unit on a part-time basis for the first three months, and went full-time after I finished writing up my dissertation. I did a wide variety of things, from small-scale research tasks to larger communication projects. I’d go out with another employee to visit the client, find out what they wanted from us, and then write up a proposal. Based on my experience I was then able to get a job at a project management company in London.

It’s a really good bridge between education and having a proper job in industry, because you still have the assistance of the university’s academic staff. It’s a very safe environment where you’re allowed to make mistakes, so you can practise before you go out into the new world. You’re mentored by experienced members of staff who can keep you on the right track, but you also have the flexibility to be creative and think of ideas on your own.

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