Improving the opportunities available to students to undertake work experience, engage with employers, embedding employability in the curriculum, and developing the skills that they demand, have been areas of intense focus across higher education for a number of years.
Despite the various problems besetting the UK economy, recent research on general graduate employability is heartening.
The What do Graduates Do 2023 report, published by Prospects, reveals that graduates were more likely to be in professional-level employment than their peers a year previously. Nearly three-quarters of working graduates were in professional-level employment after 15 months, with occupations such as ‘other nursing professionals’, marketing, graphic design and laboratory work all showing increases.
However, the introduction by the Office for Students of the “B3” numerical thresholds, which also break down graduate employment outcomes by subject and student characteristics, has given the quest to ensure all students maximise their employability a new sense of urgency. For governing boards, it is now a top agenda item.
The governor of a new university in the north of England explains: “It might surprise some people that we are so focused on employability, but we are - because why do students come here? Yes of course they want to study with us and hopefully they like the course and find it interesting and challenging but they also come because they know it will help them get a really good job.”
Governors at her institution receive a detailed report on graduate outcomes, including employment, once a year but this is only a small dimension of how governors think about graduate employability.
“Absolutely everything we do in terms of curriculum planning and any oversight of that from governors is all about ‘well that’s all very well but is it going to help students get a job and help them in terms of labour market skills’.
“We see the metrics and ask about them and make sure we understand them and why they are better in some areas than others. We would absolutely interrogate the metrics and be very sure that we are confident about what they are telling us and what they are telling the world about the institution.”
Many courses at the university are vocational or professional in nature and graduate outcomes are strong.
Governors point out that an institution’s portfolio will have a big impact on what the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data looks like.
“We have pretty high success rates,” said the governor of a specialist institution in the southeast. “Employability issues haven’t jumped out at us in the way the B3 problem is potentially kicking in at a number of other institutions. That has a lot to do with your subject mix. We are in the hard sciences, engineering and business. There are obvious opportunities for our graduates. It’s a different story if you are graduating with a history degree and you are not sure what you want to do. Most of the people that we are working with are very clear that they want to build aircraft or develop robots or run their own logistics business or something.”
Boards not only investigate the metrics but also want the opportunity to see how employability works in practice.
Governors at one university recently visited its business clinic, where students can link up to employers as part of a raft of measures to boost work experience. Tours of the nursing and education campuses are also on the agenda this year.
“Of course employability work is as important for the history graduate as much as the nursing or business graduate,” said one governor. “All senior staff look at that across the board. We have a very good employability record but as a governing body, that is something that we would absolutely not want to slip and that we would want to see it constantly improve.”
Governors can themselves contribute to employability work and networking is seen as an important part of their role.
The chair of governors at a new university has identified links with employers as an area of priority and is encouraging governors to reach out where appropriate and help to create liaisons and partnerships.
Governor recruitment can seek to boost representation on boards of individuals involved in industry and in areas where the university has strong interests.
“Most governing bodies will have members who have something to do with the industries the institution is trying to deliver to or that it wants to open up to,” said one governor. “That’s possibly an area that might be valuably tapped more as the focus of the Office for Students swings in. There are a number of people on our governing body who are themselves concerned about their graduate recruitment and how that is working, so it’s a topic of interest to people full stop.”
Partnerships with employers are crucial to the development of degree apprenticeships, which the education secretary and the universities minister want to see expanded further.
Successful degree apprenticeship courses can boost student outcomes. The What do Graduates Do 2023 report found that 95 per cent of 2019/20 first-degree graduates who had done an apprenticeship were in professional-level employment 15 months after graduation, with 42 per cent working as engineering and IT professionals. A Sutton Trust report on apprenticeships, however, has revealed that young people and those in deprived areas have not been the beneficiaries of attempts so far to grow programmes.
Universities point to the challenges of expansion, including the amount of staff input that is required to create good quality programmes and the high level of scrutiny under the Ofsted inspection framework.
“We have successful apprenticeships and we know the government want to see more across the sector, but we want to see if it is going to come forward with any further suggestions about how they might run going forward,” said one chair of governors.
Another area of concern that through the B3 conditions is receiving more attention is the varying employability rates across different groups of students. White graduates, for instance, are more likely to be in employment 15 months after graduation than their BAME counterparts and are also more likely to be in professional-level employment. Governors are scrutinising these metrics and looking for reassurances.
“The board looks very closely at the exit trajectory of its students,” said one governor. “Even within our successful employment figures, the statistics suggest that BAME students find it harder. Across the piece, there will certainly be pockets of particular subgroups - it might be single mothers, or White men from a certain socioeconomic cluster, who need more support.”
The fate of international students is an area that needs more attention, in the view of a student governor at a Russell Group university.
“For international students, their confidence in this is quite low,” he said. “Universities are starting to look more at transitioning from postgraduate study into skilled work. International students on a post-study work visa need a sponsor. That’s a tricky situation as most employers don’t seem to think it is worth it.”
According to this governor, many institutions, particularly big universities, have yet to successfully embed employability or to systematically demonstrate to students how what they are learning is directly related to the world of work.
“In general the careers system of most universities, especially in the Russell Group, is quite traditional,” he said. “It is focused on traditional professional careers which for some students might not be the right fit and where it is, many don’t feel confident that they will be able to get access, because of the scarcity of these roles in the labour market.”
His comments are reflected in a recent Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) survey which found that less than half of students felt ‘very confident’ or ‘quite confident’ that they are likely to find their desired job on graduation.
One issue raised by governors was the extent to which all staff considered student employability to be part of their responsibility.
“Across the sector, I am absolutely sure that there are still pockets of staff that think ‘I go in, I teach this subject which is incredibly interesting and I help students get the best outcome in terms of their degree – and that’s it’,” said the governor of a new university. “They update the curriculum and think that is enough and of course, it isn’t enough. You do need to have those links and establish the partnerships. Heads of department and the whole institution has to own this agenda.”
Another governor points out, however, that beefing up employability has workload and resource implications.
“It entails persuading academics to take on another responsibility which is a challenge given that they are already striking because they say they are overworked. It doesn’t help that there is no clear idea of how to do it: should there be one session per module to point out the opportunities or how the skills can be applied in the workplace? Should it run through the course? Should it be delivered by academics or the careers service or by employers?”
A number of institutions are exploring initiatives such as alumni mentoring in a bid to give students one-to-one attention above and beyond career office support.
The governor of a small, specialist private institution described the alumni system as critical in the progression of current students.
“A proportion of this industry is about who you know,” she said. “If you are looking for someone to join your team, you might well look to someone who has done course X or who was taught by Fred, because you rate both. Those are important connections that are not driven by family but by the networking structures of the HE institution.”
Governors point to the importance of context when understanding employability and explaining success rates to the wider world. For some specialist institutions and courses, portfolio careers are common and their complexity can have an impact on employment metrics. Meanwhile, institutions in economic cold spots suffer from geographical disadvantages.
“We feel it is more difficult in the north,” said one governor. “There always has been an issue of retaining graduates in the area because often the jobs they are looking for just are not available. One of the areas we are looking at in our strategy is how we use knowledge exchange to develop more high-quality jobs in this region and work with other universities and colleges to try and boost the economy.”
The governor predicts the positioning of universities as anchor institutions and drivers of local and regional economic growth will be a focus for future governments.
“I think there will be a sharper eye on what universities are doing to develop local economies,” she said. “That is fine and I would encourage that, as long as resourcing comes along with it. Universities in areas like we are in have got a big job to do and they can really help with levelling up but not without additional resources.”
Keep up to date – sign up to Advance HE communications
Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.