Digital skills for employment: to teach or not to teach?

‘a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations.’[1]

Employability has occupied a prominent place on the wider HE agenda for a number of years. However, as a participant in last month’s UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities remarked, it may have been lower on the individual agendas of research universities than on the agendas of others. Now, with employability and transferable skills included in the assessment criteria for the TEF, the topic is of concern to all.

The UCISA Spotlight featured a debate with the motion ‘The most important reason to develop student digital capabilities is employability.’ Rather than report on the arguments that were put forward there, I thought it might be more relevant to hear the voices of Oxford students and staff. So, here is an edited extract from the report of the DIGE 2 (Student Digital Experience 2) project published in 2015[2]:

We questioned both students and staff as to whether the University has a responsibility to help students acquire the general digital capabilities that they might need in the workplace.  The data reported here are taken from surveys of 276 students and 45 academics, and from interviews with individual academics. Although the material is now two years old, the the points made are, I think, still current.

The views of students

Postgraduate students felt strongly that the University should offer training in general IT skills needed for employment, with 77% of taught postgraduates and 69% of research postgraduates in favour of the proposition. Undergraduate feeling was mixed, with only 44% favouring such support. Supplementary comments in undergraduates’ survey responses clustered around the opinion that students should already have these skills before coming to Oxford and, if not, they should be able to teach themselves these skills on their own.

Several undergraduates pointed out that IT training is offered in UK schools and should include the one employment-related skill mentioned repeatedly: viz. word processing. One student wrote: ‘Oxford is not a professional university, it is a research university and people treating it as the former is part of its problem’, and another criticised the proposition for ‘misunderstand[ing] the point of a university education.  Intelligent people should normally be able to gain the relevant skills themselves.’ Some students adopted a more moderate stance; for example, ‘If the University does provide courses to teach IT skills, that’s good but not a necessity.’ Others felt that ‘We’re paying enough money to actually attend university, so it would be nice if they were to set us up for the future should we feel the need to ask them for some help.’ However, the voluntary nature of IT training was seen as crucial.

The views of academic staff

A more focused question was put to staff; specifically, whether academics have a responsibility to include, as part of their teaching, opportunities for students to develop digital skills that they might need in future employment. The quantitative data seem decisive, with 65% of respondents answering ‘Yes’; however, the qualitative data from 13 survey respondents and several interviewees are more nuanced and illustrate a range of perspectives.

Although part of a tutor’s role may be to ensure that their students are equipped for the world after graduation, two interviewees from the humanities  expressed the view that employability skills are a by-product of students’ intellectual formation:

I don’t think of it as how I will make my student employable, I think about how I will make the student the best student they can be. That of course will make them more employable because of the type of skills we teach our students.

I’m not teaching students to have a better job prospect, I’m teaching them so they can learn to appreciate and love literature and perhaps broaden their minds.

A respondent to the staff survey who taught in MPLS felt that ‘practice in developing digital skills can be built in via targeted elements of the overall course.’ This may be more straightforward in some disciplines than others. In applied science subjects – i.e. ones that have an industrial aspect to them – students can be introduced to the approaches and technologies typically adopted in industry. Indeed, in science generally, ‘by and large, a digitally illiterate (science) graduate is useless in any real world environment, be it for research, development, teaching or any other industry they decide to work in.’ Professional bodies may also dictate the matter: the Law Faculty’s compulsory course on digital skills for first-year students is a response to requirements of the Law Society.

An interviewee from the social sciences reflected a comment in the student survey (quoted earlier in this section) regarding the distinctive nature of teaching in a research-intensive university:

it’s not a practical degree; we are not teaching them how to run a business: we are teaching them how business is run. That is a very different agenda. … I think a research intensive university should be about ideas, not about the vocational preparation.

In similar vein, another humanities academic pointed out that Oxford academics, as leaders in their (research) field, ‘won’t necessarily know, and have an interest, with the outside world and the skills that are required.’ He argued,’why make them responsible to teach students to be employable for something they themselves have not necessarily done?’

Regardless of their own responsibility in students’ development as digitally literate graduates, a number of academics readily acknowledged the role to be played by the University as a whole, including these two from Social Sciences:

Universities teach transferable skills like logical thinking, argumentation, background research, and persuasive writing, and ICTs are part of these skills today.

If we are training people without reference to the right tools with which they will be living their lives, both their academic or [sic] professional lives, I think that is irresponsible.

A survey respondent with an administrative role at Oxford drew on her experience in the commercial sector in expressing her concern lest graduates be left behind in the workplace by colleagues who have not been to university:

Everything is becoming digitalised and fairly soon it will be standard. Students must be prepared for this or they will be at a disadvantage against those who have not gone to University and have a solid understanding of digital methodology through employment.

In terms of how these digital skills should be taught, suggestions included online training for basic tools such as Word and PowerPoint, and the provision of face-to-face training centrally by specialists from IT Services or the libraries.


The vote taken at the end of the UCISA debate showed a clear, but not overwhelming, majority against the motion, which was defeated by 23 to 10. That is, employability was not considered to be the primary purpose of developing students’ digital capabilities during their university education, although the ‘for’ side continued to express its arguments vigorously even as the chair was wrapping up!

To be fair, the debate and the DIGE 2 study approached the topic from slightly different angles. However, both suggest that much discussion is still to be had around the relationship between learning for the love of the subject and learning with at least one eye on the kind of job to which it might lead – and how to reconcile the possible differing perspectives of staff and students on this relationship and on its implications for a university’s curriculum.


[1] Yorke, M. (2004). Employability in Higher Education: what it is – what it is not. Higher Education Academy/ESECT.

[2] Masterman, L. (2015). DIGE 2: Student Digital Experience project 2. Research Report. (single sign-on required)

Photo credits:
    Top: CC BY University of the Fraser Valley via Flickr 
    Middle:  CC BY Texas A&M University via Flickr 
    Bottom: CC BY UC Davis College of Engineering via Flickr

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