This piece has been contributed to the Students Futures Commission on behalf of Manchester Metropolitan University by Dr Mark Peace, Academic Director of the RISE programme and Dr Stephen Boyd, Director of Careers and Employability.
RISE is a programme available to all students at the Manchester Metropolitan University. It enables them to ‘over-credit’ their degrees with additional units based on engagement with employment enhancing extra-curricular experience.
We set up RISE in 2018, responding to the increasingly clear sense that the learning that occurred beyond core study is critical to graduate outcomes, but unevenly accessed by students. The project took the ambitious step of creating a co-curricular framework through which any student could translate experiences into additional classificatory credit. We invited students to recognise their independent ventures. But we accompanied this with a programme of courses, projects, mobilities and placements, and an assessment methodology to support them to understand and communicate the value of that experience.
Following a successful pilot, 2019/20 was our scaling year, with over 2,500 opportunities from working intensively in on-campus courses, travelling to China on funded mobilities, befriending training and placements in hospitals and care homes. In short, it was the kind of vibrant, engaged offer that is incompatible with an international pandemic.
Over the six week acceleration of Covid, it became clear that 85% of our plans were no longer viable. But what became equally clear was that our delivery had become more critical.
Students were desperate to add richness to their locked-down worlds and to find connections with others. At the same time, the loss of opportunity around the student experience (whether placements, volunteering, participation in societies or just the informal collaboration of uni life) risked deepening the existing differentials amongst students.
So like many others, we pivoted.
And like others, this was at first a wild-eyed sprint to shift online. But our response soon became more than a reaction to an emergency. It presented opportunities to churn up some sedimented approaches and find more creative ways of working we will sustain. Here we share some of the reflections we think are worth sharing more broadly.
If it counts, it really should count.
The RISE offer has landed well with students. It has consistently doubled its engagement target: from a pilot of 600 students, growing to 2,500 and then 5,000 students in each year of the pandemic.
The general popularity of RISE has been heartening, but we are proud of its specific reach. Compared to the University demographic, it has consistently engaged students who may otherwise be less assured of success within and beyond their studies. This is true for BAME students (+8%), commuting (+10%), first-generation students (+2%) and disabled students (+6%). We have also seen a particular presence of students with declared mental health issues (+4%).
Our data suggests that the addition of credit to experience has doubled the engagement of ‘non-traditional groups’. There is a degree to which students grappling with imposter syndrome might find attractive a method to assure better grade outcomes. More significantly, though, students tell us of complex lives made even more difficult through the pandemic. A choice of something that ‘doesn’t count’, competing with a whole range of immediate life demands, is no choice at all. The formal endorsement of credits changes this formula, and hence we see the change in engagement.
We passionately believe that experiences we support through RISE matter and that a progressive approach to those opportunities is critical to closing the outcome gaps that blight the sector. In doing so, we reposition the extra-curricular as co-curricular and signal to students that such experiences have value. Drawing them formally into the curriculum invests the pedagogic work to make sure that they have an impact.
Students have responded well to this integration. Over-crediting means that students don’t imperil classifications by stepping out of their comfort zones. We have seen a fascinating willingness from students to take risks, immersing themselves in unfamiliar territories and simply taking things because ‘they look challenging’.
Students particularly turn to RISE as a productive space at points of struggle or lostness.. But more broadly, students appreciate the ability to invest in self-efficacy (and we very much see the value of stoking that willingness). These have been dynamics with particular resonance during the pandemic.
Employability, at least, ain’t viral.
RISE has sought to deliver shorter, more flexible placements – mindful of their association with good graduate outcomes, and consequent positioning as the ‘gold standard’ of employability support
It is tempting to adopt a simple and transmissive view of what students gain through a placement. But it is important to remind ourselves that placements are an aggregate of individual experiences and transformations. Once we understand what these are we can reduce the unevenness when the less confident or less socially enfranchised student experiences them.
Importantly, if we bottle these processes, we can deliver them in different ways. This potential became significant through the pandemic and the contraction in the ability of employers to provide students with direct opportunities. We took this space as an opportunity to develop approaches to delivering experiences with analogous impacts.
Our notion of an ‘employability lab’ is one example of such an approach. These aspirational live projects bring together an interdisciplinary students team delivering a concrete, time-bounded outcome. They create an in-house enterprise with many of the dynamics of a workplace.
A particularly successful example of this was Art School-Live, led by two outstanding Technical Officers (Evan Wilson and Sam Heitzman). It created a two-day, live-streamed music festival with everything from branding and promotions to events management and the technical business of video, audio and mixing, led by students.
The output was outstanding (I urge you to spend some time with the recorded streams here), but equally significant was the impact on students. It appealed well to students who might avoid what they perceived as more threatening external opportunities. At the same time, the group spoke of the authenticity of the experience (“who lets the work experience kid push the buttons!”), and the capacity to pause that authenticity for exploration and support when they were ‘in too deep’ (“that would have been me tanking on placement”). The combined effect was a significant development in the skill and confidence of students and a visible asset demonstrating these externally.
The involvement of external partners remained significant through our experiments with employability labs and other approaches. They acted as mentors and coaches, project-brief holders and expert consultants – and this externality was important to students. Equally, reconfiguring placement into something more internal allowed us to create opportunities for students and to invest in an overt pedagogy that enabled us to deepen and assure their impact. These are all lessons to be taken forward in the next wave of development.
Adventuring ‘Off the Rails’
The RISE experiment encourages students to navigate open opportunities based on their needs and aspirations. Students reflect on improvements to self-efficacy and a recognition of the range of the assets beyond their academic performance. They also find it daunting, challenging expectations of a tightly framed and ordered educational experience. It also creates challenges to the educator; we must, by default, surrender control over the students’ journey.
These are complex but very practical challenges for RISE. We need to respond to them to balance challenge and satisfaction and keep students coming back to us. We also need to assure trajectories and impacts to maintain alignment of the project to institutional needs.
However, we equally know that a less student-centred equivalent does nothing to build autonomy and capability in students; and risks widening the gulfs between students who have different levels of entitlement. Further, there tends to be a point of ‘flip’ amongst students, in which the space for autonomy allows them to realise that they can achieve brilliant things. Taking students to this involves strong messaging around permissions, normalising senses of anxiety and investment in coaching.
As we turn to our next iteration, we’re therefore thinking carefully about the entry experience to RISE. How do we unlock degrees of freedom within our offer as students gain more confidence with its approach and develop the tools they need to navigate it? In doing so, we are reflecting on some of the mechanics of open-world video games, which walk the same tension in presenting a free-roaming landscape without the user becoming lost in the freedom available to them. The results are helping us to think carefully about the educational value of nudges and features of the viewable landscape – and attend more rigorously to the notion of ‘transferable skills’ as a toolset to the RISE participant.
This piece is part of the ongoing series of blogs and case studies that we will be publishing over the next few months. It represents the views of the author, and is part of the broad conversation the Student Futures Commission is facilitating.