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Universiteit Leiden

Innovation ChallengeChallenge Your Challenges!

Julie Mouveroux
Sarah Eckardt


Numerous employers believe that students are not well prepared to start their working life after university. Most students are aware of this issue and a lot of them want to increase their soft skills by doing an internship. For international students, finding an internship in the Netherlands can be challenging due to the language barrier. Our solution, the innovation challenge will allow third-year bachelor students to develop the skills they need around three pillars: teamwork, professional communication, and time management. They will work in a team to develop an innovative solution that could lessen the burden of the housing crisis in the Netherlands. During the challenge, they will work autonomously on their project, learn how to provide and implement feedback and pitch their ideas to professionals in that field. At the end of the project, each team will present their work to several stakeholders that might decide to implement the most relevant solutions. For us, there is no doubt that this collaboration for innovation between students and stakeholders will lead to new and relevant ideas to tackle the crisis.


Arguably, the primary reason to attend university is to acquire the qualifications needed to get employment in the desired field. In that sense, the concept of employability of students after graduation appears to be crucial. While it has to be acknowledged that employability in itself is a contested concept, the definition of the UK’s Higher Education Academy has been adopted for the purpose of this paper. According to the latter, employability is 

“A set of achievements, skills, understandings and personal attributes that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community, and the economy.” (HEA in O’Leary, 2015). 

Despite the apparent importance for university students, their employability seems to below. According to a recent survey from Succi and Canovi (2020), 60,2% of employers indicated that they perceived students to be not well prepared for working life after university. Often the lack of employability in this context is attributed to a lack of soft skills. While students often appear to be academically highly qualified with regards to hard skills, 54% of employers from a study in the UK found that students are still lacking soft skills (Succi & Canovi, 2020). This lack of soft skills is especially precarious in light of the increasing relevance of the latter. 85,5% of both employers and students questioned by Succi and Canovi (2020) indicated that soft skills became increasingly relevant over the last five to ten years. This aligns with Chhinzer and Russo (2017) who find that the development of soft skills and problem-solving skills are associated with higher employability. 

The term soft skills, however, is contested and broad. Hence, the question of what kind of soft skills are specifically demanded by employers is inevitable. The answer to this question, however, is more complicated than it might seem. Due to the different conceptualizations of what constitutes soft skills and what does fall under problem-solving or generic skills, the results of surveys with this question in mind differ (Chhinzer & Russo, 2017); Succi & Canovi, 2017). Nevertheless, it can be said that generally, that employers deem communication skills, work commitment, and teamwork skills to be most important (Succi & Canovi, 2017). 

Having identified what is missing with regards to student employability, one question inevitably arises: Why? Why do university students lack these skills? Essentially, there are two reasons for that. First, while university programs often do provide excellent theoretical education and they often do not provide a lot of opportunities to develop these soft skills that are arguably best developed by practice. This becomes evident in the absence of dedicated space for longer internships in most program curricula. 

However, even if there would be time for an internship, especially for internationals in the Netherlands, there are a number of hurdles preventing students from getting such an internship. A quick glance at well-known vacancy and internship websites illustrates these issues. First, often employers already want potential interns to have relevant work experience which is paradoxical since students want to do an internship to get said experience in the first place. Second, potential interns already have to have a degree while still being enrolled at uni which automatically excludes many bachelor students from getting internships. Finally, and arguably the highest hurdle to overcome, is the language barrier. Most often, employers require interns to be fluent in Dutch which many international students are not. This aligns with our own experience as international students and the experiences of stakeholders that we talked to. 

However, if the development of soft skills is not part of the normal study curricula and doing an extracurricular internship is not possible either due to the previously identified barriers, then how can students develop their skills set and increase their employability levels? The found importance of the latter question and the responsibility of institutions of higher education in this regard appears to align with a general trend within higher education. A rising number of programs for students are developed that adopt a wok-integrated and project-integrated approach with the goal of providing students with more opportunities to develop soft skills (Hart, 2019). At Regent’s University London, students of a graduate program even have the possibility of choosing between writing a classic dissertation or taking part in a more practically oriented consultancy project (O’Leary, 2015). Around 60% chose the latter option (O’Leary, 2015). 

For these reasons, this group has made the decision to focus on developing a project that would help students to increase their employability through the development of relevant soft skills.


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To justify the design choices made for the innovation challenge, several perspectives discussed during the course, Furrer et al.`s motivation model (2014), and the Value Proposition Model, will be utilized. In addition to that, Project-based learning (PBL) and Bloom’s taxonomy have been taken into account. 

In order to pinpoint the target group and the value for such a project, the value proposition model has been utilized (Crashcourse, 2019; Van de Ven, 2021). After considering geographic, demographic, psychographic, and behavioral segmentation, the following target group has been identified (Crashcourse, 2019; Van de Ven, 2021). Third Year Bachelor (International) Students at Leiden University have low employability due to a lack of soft skills and have problems acquiring these skills otherwise. The proposed project is most valuable for this group since they are most affected by the aforementioned barriers for developing the required soft skills. To enable them to participate, the project is planned mainly for the first semester so that they have time to concentrate on their thesis the next semester. The workload of 14 hours per week has been the result of a short survey of preferences of Leiden university students. 

This, however, is not the only potential value for students of this project. In addition to the development of soft skills, they will also develop in-depth specific theoretical knowledge about the projects’ topic. These are the functional values of the project (Crashcourse, 2019; Van de Ven, 2021). The social value of this project for students are the opportunities to network(Crashcourse, 2019; Van de Ven, 2021). Emotionally, the project is of value since it provides students with a confidence boost in their own abilities and employability and enables them to become part of a societal issue they are affected by themselves ((Crashcourse, 2019; Hart, 2019; Van de Ven, 2021). The potential value for the university is that the employment rate of students that graduated might increase. Stakeholders profit by getting a potential new solution for a problem they are involved in from a new perspective. 

Furthermore, this could strengthen their ties with the university and might lead to further collaborations. 

Essentially, the innovation challenge is based on the project-based learning approach (PBL) approach which can be perhaps best described as ‘learning by doing’ (Chang et al., 2018). Together in interdisciplinary teams, students work on a problem, in our case the housing crisis, to develop approaches for potential solutions of the issue. This active learning method is not only known to improve students’ motivation but also facilitates independent thinking, problem-solving, and other skills such as self-management, teamwork, and communication (Hart, 2019). While there is still a need for future research to further explore the long-term effect of project-based learning on employability and measurements of specific soft skills, generally students perceive to have gained these skills (Hart, 2019). This perception appears to be shared by many institutions of higher education since an increasing number of them implement project-based learning into their curricula (O’Leary, 2015). 

However, Hart (2019), emphasizes that it is unrealistic for students to develop these skills simply by starting to work on the project. According to him, students should get clear instructions, learning objectives should be clearly outlined and skills explicitly tested to facilitate the development of said skills. This guidance is provided in several ways. Introductory meetings not only clearly outline the structure and expectations of the program but also provide guidance for students on how to start and develop such a project through a lecture on problem-solving. Further guidance is provided through the continuous coordination meeting throughout the program and several presentations and pitches where students are confronted with critical questions and feedback. Furthermore, guest lectures from relevant stakeholders such as the municipality or Nuffic are planned to confront students with professional perspectives from the field. 

The need for such guidance becomes also evident with regards to Bloom’s taxonomy. According to the latter, there are several learning objective levels that build up on each other, namely remembering, understanding applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating (Shabatura, 2013). In order for students to reach a specific level of learning objects such as applying, they have to master the previous level, in this case, understanding that builds its base (Shabatura, 2013). Arguably, developing a minimum viable product as an approach to lessen the burden of the housing crisis can be categorized as creating objective, the highest level. Hence, guidance is needed to ensure that students master the previous levels to enable them to finish their projects successfully. To do so, there will be several thematic lectures in the introductory phase of the course to familiarize students and help them understand 

important concepts of Access to Justice and apply them to the housing crisis. Another step that has been taken in this context is that each student group will be assigned a specific perspective to work on with regard to the housing perspective (e.g. tenant perspective) to further specify the topic and provide students with a clear direction. It is unrealistic to expect students to find a solution to the entire housing crisis. Rather, they are expected to find an approach to lessen the burden of the housing crisis on students. An Example of this is the Just Fix project in New York (JustFix, n.d.). 

Moreover, as will be seen, this effort to create guidance through feeback opportunities, lectures and coordination meetings can also contribute to increasing student motivation. It is crucial to ensure sustained student motivation over this extended period of time (five months) to enable students to finish their project and develop their soft skills. In this context, the motivational model of Furrer et al. (2014) has been adopted. Before applying the latter to the context of this project, however, it has to be acknowledged that the applicability of this model is constraint by the fact that said framework has been developed in the context of a traditional classroom setting in a school (Furrer et al., 2014). Our project will, for the most part, not take place in a traditional classroom setting. Nevertheless, this framework still appears to be useful and, at least to some extent, applicable to this project since there will still be considerable interpersonal interaction between various actors, which will still influence the student’s motivational resilience (engagement and coping). Motivation is fostered in several ways. First, structure (Furrer et al., 2014). The previously outlined guidance provided by the course coordinator can help students figure out how to reach the expectations of this course which can facilitate a feeling of competence and confidence in their abilities in students. Second, involvement, warmth, and autonomy support (Furrer et al., 2014). During scheduled meetings every two weeks with the student, the coordinator has the possibility to actively listen to potential issues the students might have run into and listen to their ideas. Then, the coordinator can try to come up with a solution or some form of support. Ideally, this should create feelings of relatedness and autonomy in students. These feelings together with the self-perception of competence should incentivize students to be engaged and cope with difficulties they might encounter during their project. 

Regarding the peer relationships within the team, this is more difficult to evaluate since the students are working for the most part autonomously and outside of a classroom context (Furrer et al., 2014). Nevertheless, the design of the project can still have a positive influence on the relationship between team members. During the introduction meeting, the students can be made aware of the said model and thereby of the importance of a good team relationship 

(to be able to recognize a downward spiral and intervene before it escalates) (Furrer et al., 2014). They can also be explained what that entails. Students can also be asked to develop team rules for each other to hold each other accountable. If there should be a conflict, they can always contact the coordinator. All in all the goal is for students to develop motivational resilience and focus on authentic academic work (Furrer et al., 2014). Finally, the active learning approach of PBL has also been associated with increased student motivation (Hart, 2019). Arguably, this could be related to the autonomy students have with their projects. This could be further fostered in our project, since students, as one of the groups most affected by the housing crisis, have a personal stake in finding a solution.


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