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Building blocks for a successful skills award

June 2020

How do you put together a skills award that helps students develop and increase their opportunities for success? Kirsty Stewart outlines some of the common themes…

Skills awards are common across the UK higher education sector. They have an increasing focus on the whole of a student's development beyond the formal educational setting and support student development by delivering on the desire among many students to set themselves apart from their peers. Awards may also be a route to engaging students with strategic themes identified at your institution.

Sitting on the AGCAS Skills Award Task Group allows me the opportunity to interact with colleagues managing and evolving skills awards and the below guide suggests key themes to consider based on these experiences. Of course, choices and implementation will depend on the institution.  

Activity or role

The goal of skills awards is to help students go through a process that supports their development to increase their opportunity for success in future. Many institutions require students to take part in extracurricular activity where there is potential for a diverse range of skills to be developed. For some awards, activity is prescribed by the institution and for others it may be defined by the student. At Edinburgh, our approach sits somewhere in between. We have around 60 different versions of our Edinburgh Award - some are very broad, for example any part-time job, while others are much more specific, such as a volunteer in the Advice Place. 

It is important to consider what activity students will be required to undertake to achieve your award - will students have to commit to a specific number of hours doing one activity or choose from a list given to them?  

Where awards choose to have a strong career-planning focus, employers may provide sponsorship, run skills sessions, or be involved in assessment.

Reflection and articulation 

Instilling reflective practice is integral to skills awards. The ability to recognise where strengths and weaknesses lie, make plans for development and reflect on progress is a lifelong skill that can provide long term benefits. Reflection is embedded differently across skills awards. At Edinburgh it is a fundamental part of a student's journey on the award and is embedded throughout. At other institutions students may reflect in summary at the end of an activity or their overall award experience.

Integrated within this reflection are mechanisms to support students to identify and articulate their skills. This may be achieved through, written reports, mock applications, informal peer mock interviews, employer-led interview panels or a combination of these. This reflection is valued highly by students as they often report an increase in other personal attributes such as confidence, self-awareness and personal empowerment giving them a chance to fully understand the extent of their growth.

Events and workshops 

Along with students undertaking a role or activity, events and workshops are another common element to skills awards. These may be in person or online, optional or required and themes may be specific to the activity or focussed broadly on career development.  For example, at Bolton, students must attend an appointment with a careers adviser and have their CV reviewed as part of their award experience.

At Edinburgh, students are supported to plan for and reflect on their development within interactive sessions, and these provide a safe space for students to share with and learn from their peers as well as their own reflective practice.

Meanwhile at Bristol, workshop criteria is shared with students and they then choose which events (offered by a range of providers) might best serve their needs. This is particularly effective for PGRs who like to also attend professional conferences or workshops offered by the Doctoral college.

Employer involvement 

Many skills awards utilise employers. Where awards choose to have a strong career-planning focus, employers may provide sponsorship, run skills sessions, or be involved in assessment. At Newcastle, employers from large graduate recruiters to SMEs deliver 'speed interviewing' where small groups of students rotate around several employers. Some of the Advanced Awards at Newcastle are also run in partnership with employers.

Involving employers from the outset in the design and delivery of skills awards can be an important step to ensure that skills development  through the award will be as relevant as possible to the local and national labour market.


Assessment methods vary across the sector. Some institutions offer different levels of awards and the differences between these levels will often be the assessment criteria, with a more rigorous assessment for the uppermost award level.  This is the case at Bristol where only the higher-level Outstanding Award students are assessed with students doing the Bristol PLUS Award receiving the Award provided they complete all the set criteria by an annual deadline.

Similarly, at Ulster students doing the advanced level Ulster EDGE Excel Award attend an employer-led selection interview, while at Newcastle students doing the ncl+ Award have the option of providing a written submission or attending an employer-led interview workshop.


Approaches to skills awards vary across the sector however, the above provides an overview of the common themes found throughout. To find out more, access the resources on the AGCAS website including case studies and webinar recordings, including a recent webinar on Restructuring Skills Awards. Please do contact the Task Group with any questions. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

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