Cardiff National Software Academy (NSA) was established in 2015 jointly by the University of Cardiff and the Welsh Government. The NSA was set up to address the skills shortages in the local technology sector, where local employers had expressed concern about the lack of graduates who were prepared with the skills to contribute sufficiently to the sector. This sentiment has been found to be an issue more widely across the engineering and technology sector, with IET (2017) finding 70% of employers expressed a concern in the supply or quality of young people entering or seeking to enter the industry. The NSA partnership drew on close collaboration with industry partners to support its realisation.
The NSA offers a three-year undergraduate (UG) degree (BSc) in Applied Software Engineering. It claims to offer an innovative approach to undergraduate education in order to better prepare students for the world of work when they graduate, and to even have students ready for employment before this point. It does this through continuous close links with employers, project-based learning approaches, hands-on experiences with industry, a commercial-like environment, and the targeted development of employability skills.
Ensuring graduates are ‘work-ready’ or employable is becoming an increasingly pressing matter for universities. This research investigated the NSA as a model of higher education delivery to establish whether it could present an example for set up and delivery of higher education which supports the employability of students, and could be applied elsewhere across the sector. Specifically, we sought to research:
How does the National Software Academy build in employer engagement and develop innovative curriculum and teaching delivery to ensure that graduates are work-ready?
The research was based on case study methodology, using qualitative individual and focus groups interviews, and observations at key student-employer events such as student project showcase events. The data collection provided an in-depth understanding of the process of setting up the NSA; their approaches to teaching and learning; and the experiences with the NSA of different stakeholders. Field research took place in the 2018-2019 academic year. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with senior leadership staff at the NSA, NSA lecturers teaching on the UG programme, three employers who have worked with the NSA or NSA students, and a government representative involved in the establishment of the NSA. Eight focus groups were also carried out with students across the three levels of the UG programme. All interviews had written consent from participants. They were audio recorded and transcribed and these transcripts were analysed using a content analysis approach to draw out key themes.
Interviewees, significantly the employers we spoke to, held the NSA in high esteem in its ability to prepare students with the skills and knowhow needed for the labour market. Employers highlighted that both students and graduates they had worked with from the NSA were contributing significantly in their roles in the workplace, exhibiting both a faster pace and a higher quality in comparison to non-NSA graduates and student interns. A number of employers commented that those from the NSA joined the workplace and ‘hit the ground running’. The NSA was found to have several aspects of its establishment and delivery which contributed to this graduate ‘preparedness’ for work.
- All students take part in regular authentic client-facing projects in student teams. The 4-week projects in every semester are set by employers or other external partners and address a real-world issue that is pertinent to that client. Projects are also carefully considered by the teaching staff to ensure the project ‘brief’ is relevant to the current teaching material and learning objectives. These projects were shown to develop key skills in students, namely team working and problem-solving skills. Significantly they also gave students the opportunity to develop their communication skills, particularly with employers, as students established lines of communication throughout the projects to ensure that they were responding accurately to the clients’ needs. Students also presented their final ‘product’ to clients and NSA staff at the end of the project.
- Curriculum content at the NSA has been developed in partnership between academic staff and industry experts. Industry experts (employers) were brought in from the outset to support NSA’s initial design of the curriculum, yet are also continually involved to ensure this design remains up to date and relevant to the needs of industry. This was viewed as particularly important given the rapid pace of change in software engineering. It is regarded as a responsibility of NSA staff to foster close relationships with a wide range of industry partners to encourage their continuous input into the curriculum content and to encourage employers’ visits to the NSA, for example, delivering guest lectures and attending networking events. Networking with industry also kept the teaching staff’s industry knowledge up to date.
- The methods of teaching employed at the NSA are not regarded as traditional in higher education settings, which are typically theory-heavy and largely lecture-based. At the NSA two- and-a-half-hour teaching blocks are set up based on a continuous cycle of theory and practice. Often a flipped- classroom approach is taken whereby, students read or watch theory before the class sessions take place or are introduced to short 10-minute lectures of content when in the classroom. The majority of the sessions involve students individually or in teams putting into practice the content they have learnt in a semi-live environment, with the support of teaching staff, peers and, at times, tutors from industry. This approach contributes to the development of strong problem-solving skills. One issue that was highlighted here was that students at times felt that they were lacking some theoretical content they needed as software engineers. In response staff emphasised that, in an ever-changing industry such as software engineering, students are being equipped with the skills to teach themselves to supplement any gaps in the curriculum content.
- Students at the NSA further develop employability skills through its explicit teaching. For example, external experts are brought in to run workshops, such as a day’s workshop on effective presentation techniques. Employability skills are also referenced in module objectives to ensure they are developed throughout the course. Consequently, these skills are then being put into practice on a regular basis in both a safe learning space with peers and a ‘live’ environment, such as with employers.
- The physical environment of the NSA is set up to emulate a workplace rather than a traditional university teaching environment. The teaching spaces are open-plan office style classrooms that support collaborative working approaches. Practices that exist in industry are also integrated into the NSA environment, such as daily briefings, walls that can be written on to plan and inspire, and bookable meeting rooms.
- Students are strongly encouraged and supported to take up opportunities to work in relevant placements either short term during holiday periods or on an ongoing basis. Staff noted that there was a noticeable difference between the students who took part in placements and those that did not. The NSA is open to the fact that students can bring their learning from the industry and feed this back into the teaching to ensure that it is more up to date. Staff help with finding connections for potential placements and mentoring, they visit students during the placement, and foster placements’ utility.
- Relationships are developed and sustained through open and respectful lines of communication, including between staff and industry partners as well as between staff and students. Staff at the NSA saw it as their responsibility to foster relationships with industry partners. Students were also encouraged to feed into the NSA and their views about the course and industry were welcomed.
Although a number of the findings may not be unique to UG delivery, for example a number of institutions are beginning to use client-based/project-based learning approaches as part of their courses, it is thought that the NSA successfully develops the employability of its software engineering students through a combination of these factors. Employers were extremely positive about the students they had worked with, for example, either through placements or the client-facing projects. Employers who had recruited NSA graduates also praised their readiness for the workplace and the imminent contributions they were making to the organisation. This research was carried out when only one graduate cohort had gone into employment and therefore further investigation is necessary to assess the long-term success of the NSA graduates in the workplace. However, findings of this research suggest that the NSA’s inclusive approach to employability development, and the intensity with which this approach is carried out, contributes greatly to their graduates being highly employable.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ A contemporary approach to employable graduates – Cardiff National Software Academy