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Salary vs. satisfaction: What constitutes good work for graduates?

  • 30 June 2017
  • By Diana Beech

Last week, HEPI hosted a roundtable lunch discussion at the RSA in conjunction with the UPP Foundation, looking at what ‘good work’ means for graduates. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, was the guest speaker at the event, sharing his thoughts on the Government’s review on modern employment practices, which he is currently leading on. A lively discussion naturally ensued.

Salaries are not everything

One of the key themes emanating from the discussion was the fact that salaries are no longer a key indicator of success in the graduate labour market. Although graduate salary benchmarks are still built into many conventional performance measures, they set unrealistic expectations for some graduates in today’s labour market and only portray a narrow definition of what success means to the modern worker. In many ways, aspiring to achieve a certain salary threshold belongs to the ‘old world’ of linear career progression, in which success is traditionally determined by an individual’s pay packet, job title and responsibilities after graduation.

All work could be good work

Today’s graduates, by contrast, have a much wider notion of what ‘good work’ means, with some prioritising a personal sense of satisfaction, which comes from helping others and making a difference to the world around us, over monetary rewards. While previous generations of graduates left university to embark on a metaphorical treadmill to get more money, today’s graduates are increasingly stepping away from this conveyor belt in the pursuit of other forms of remuneration, including better work/life balance, opportunities to work with others and increased flexibility (either of time, location or job content). By recognising people have different priorities in this regard, it is feasible that all work in the UK economy could – and should – be seen as ‘good work’. Yet, without advocacy for these different ways of measuring value, getting people to recognise all types of work as ‘good’ graduate work – particularly in an age of elevated tuition fees – will only remain an aspiration.

Geography matters

Similarly, there is a need to consider the geographic aspect of ‘good work’ for graduates. Nowadays, more graduates are recognising the value of contributing to their locality, rather than relocating to big cities where it is comparatively easier to attract higher wages and opportunities for career progression. It is in this respect that universities can build on their role as ‘place-makers’ in our society, by firmly embedding themselves in their local communities and enhancing employment prospects in places where their graduates actually want to live and work.

Honesty of mission for universities

With personal fulfilment becoming an increasingly important metric for measuring ‘good work’, it is important that our institutions take seriously their honesty of mission. When committing to a degree programme, students not only make a monetary investment in a certain type of education, but they also make a psychological contract with an institution, signifying that they relate to its values, mission and purpose. If either the course or the environment fails to live up to these expectations, then the students’ bond of trust is broken which could have detrimental effects for students’ future career aspirations as well as institutional reputations.

The importance of social capital

Social mobility and progression remain the overarching functions of higher education in the present-day. For our institutions to enable this, they need to be genuinely inclusive. This means they must be willing to be innovative in both teaching and learning, and also willing to foster closer links with employers. Careers guidance at our universities should also be mindful of the different types of rewards offered by different jobs. Institutions which fail to do these things can, instead, become mechanisms for entrenching social inequality.

By recognising their role to get students to where they want to be, not to where society expects them to be, universities should enhance their focus on students’ social capital and take as much pride in personality development as the transfer of knowledge. In our ever-changing world, students need to be supported to make informed choices that will enable them to embark on a fulfilling career. For students, having an aspiration to pursue their own conception of ‘good work’ is just the start. Having the confidence to realise this aspiration is the next level – and this is where our universities can act as the gateway to helping students to achieve ‘good work’ from all disciplines, in all sectors, and in all parts of the UK.

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