For many undergraduates, the most compelling argument for going to university is to boost their chances of achieving their career ambitions. More than half of respondents in the Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute Student Academic Experience Survey 2020 cited this as the main reason for investing in higher education.
The findings highlight that employability has to be a core element of the student experience, and this has gained even greater importance as it has become a key element in the government’s drive towards a more outcomes-focused approach to HE regulation.
“There has been an increased focus on employability in the last five years or even longer,” said the governor at a post-1992 institution in the north of England. “It’s partly driven by government policy and league tables and partly by the value for money agenda.”
The Office for Students proposed new numerical baselines on graduate outcomes, which sets an expectation that a minimum of 60 per cent of full-time young undergraduates secure “professional” jobs or go on to further study, has naturally drawn the attention of governors.
Employability featured prominently at a recent strategy away day run by a Russell Group university in the south. Although none of its courses are likely to be near the OfS baseline, graduate employment was one area where the university thought it could be doing better.
“We need to ensure that our students are equipped for the working life ahead, regardless of the course they are doing,” said one of its governors. “Even if it wasn’t for the responsibilities that the OfS and other bodies set upon us, universities ought to have it at the top of the list.”
On the face of it, the outlook is good for graduates. ONS data reveals the number of UK workers in professional jobs has risen from 11.1 million to 15.9 million since 2004.
A recent report, Busting graduate job myths, from Universities UK, reveals strong employer demand for graduates and bright future job prospects.
However, there remain almost one million more professional jobs than workers with degrees in the UK to fill them, suggesting a possible continuing mismatch between what employers want and what universities are delivering.
The number of graduate vacancies is now 20 per cent higher than in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), with job vacancies for graduates expected to increase by more than a fifth in 2022 compared to 2021.
Cited in the UUK report are figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which estimate that while 14 per cent of the UK workforce is overqualified for their current role, almost twice that number - 27.7 per cent - are underqualified, the second-highest level of the entire OECD, behind Ireland.
Universities across the sector have myriad strategies in this area.
On the back of growing evidence that work experience and internships lead to a variety of positive outcomes, as outlined in a recent Department for Education report, most are extending opportunities to more undergraduates.
Alongside traditional work placements, expanded programmes include short placements abroad, in-house work opportunities, and placement options as part of career management modules which are not necessarily connected to the subject of study. Interestingly the DfE review of evidence suggests that compulsory placements are less helpful to ‘successful’ labour market outcomes than voluntary ones.
Many institutions are incorporating part-time work into work-based learning modules and developing work-integrated learning projects in career-related skills. Efforts are being made to start the employability process earlier in students’ undergraduate life and to incorporate reflective components in students’ work placement programmes. A better understanding of and support for entrepreneurship has also developed in recent years.
Enlisting the cooperation of sufficient numbers of employers is one of the challenges, according to one governor.
“There is a lot of university focus on workplace learning, work placements and internships. The challenge is balancing this with having to have employers willing to offer those opportunities and I know that at the start of the pandemic they all went out the window,” she said. “I think that has settled to some extent post-pandemic, but this area is responsive to the environment that employers find themselves in and the level of opportunities they feel able to provide. It is not like you could necessarily, on mass, bring in work placements for all subjects and all students.”
A Russell Group governor voiced similar concerns: “If you go back a few decades, there was a lot of employment in large companies with defined graduate routes. The vast majority of employment now is in small and medium-size businesses with arguably less contact with higher education and less capacity to connect with a decent set of universities.”
As well as work experience opportunities, universities are also trying to embed employability into the curriculum: for instance, highlighting to students the skills and capabilities they are developing that are important and “sellable” in the world of work.
“A lot more is being done in building in employability as part of the course,” said one governor. “It is about recognising the skills students are gaining through their academic studies and better translating that back to them and showing them the breadth of opportunities that might be available to them because of that study.”
From a governance perspective, the quality agenda and the introduction of numerical baselines necessitate ever deeper data collection and analysis.
“There is and will continue to be a much greater focus on data and what the metrics show,” said one governor at a post-1992 university. “The issue is that the differential baselines (eg different baselines for mature or part-time students) mean there will be a hell of a lot of data that universities need to be grappling with.”
Working through that data and managing risk could become onerous and requires extra resourcing into data oversight and planning departments, rather than into student careers support and employability, suggested one governor.
While there is general relief at the move away from some form of graduate salary metric, the graduate employment baseline is regarded by some as a “blunt instrument” which fails to take account of a number of factors that are beyond universities’ control.
One governor points out that graduate outcome figures depend to some degree on how students answer the questions posed to them about their employment.
“We have a big art school and for many of those who want to pursue a career directly in the art world, it is almost inevitable that it’s going to take time to develop their position,” said one Russell Group governor. “My daughter is a fashion designer and she has done all sorts of things to keep body and soul together while she is developing her career. If you wish to be a writer or a painter, you might well be also working in a bar or cafe. If you respond to the question by saying ‘I work in a bar pouring pints’, rather than ‘I’m developing my career as an artist, that’s a different set of answers.”
For universities with large numbers of commuter students, based in areas with depressed local economies, graduate employment opportunities may be limited.
Graduate employers also have a tendency to target students from certain universities, disregarding others.
“Lazy employers will beat a path to the door of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial,” said one governor. “In one of my roles, I got sick to death of engineering companies saying they couldn’t find decent graduates and at the same time, decent graduates from places other than Oxbridge and Imperial, saying they were struggling to get a decent graduate job. It comes down to the employers not working hard enough to find the right graduates and not getting to know graduates by offering internships and selecting candidates from the same places.”
Many universities are working proactively with employers to ensure courses develop the right skill sets to give students the best chance of gaining work experience and eventually, good jobs.
The focus on closing employability gaps and the levelling up agenda has led to more targeted employability activities that are tailored to particular groups of students. For instance, some universities have set up employability funds for eligible students to provide funding for short unpaid internships, voluntary work, travel expenses, GCSE resits and even driving lessons.
A student governor at a selective university described how the university was working closely with the student union to gain better student input and to raise the profile of employability across the student body. This included ensuring that employability workshops and external speaker events, whether run by the university or the SU, were publicised across the board.
“It’s a very high priority within the university,” she said. “We are working with the executive to set up a more strategic group at that higher governance level to see where we are going with employability within the student experience. We are working to make sure that student voice is really embedded within the decisions that the employability team are making.”
Ensuring student views on employability issues are represented and heard by governing boards could prove to be a key factor in responding to the growing demands on universities in this area.
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