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Students more anxious than excited about starting their careers, despite confidence they will find work

  • 28 April 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published new research about students’ views on starting their careers, Open for business? Students’ views on entering the labour market (Policy Note 22).

The survey of over 1,000 full-time undergraduate students, undertaken for HEPI and JobTeaser in partnership by the polling company YouthSight, shows:

  • Over three-quarters (79%) of graduates feel confident of getting a graduate level job once they graduate.
  • However, when asked about their feelings towards entering the labour market, most (28%) cite anxiety as their number one feeling, ahead of confidence (23%), uncertain (16%) and feeling overwhelmed by the prospect (16%). Only 14% selected excitement as their primary emotion, leaving 3% feeling relaxed.
  • Only around one-third (29%) say the Coronavirus pandemic has altered these feelings, with 71% saying their feelings have not changed since the crisis.
  • Students define employability as being related to their skills: either gaining skills relevant to a specific role (68%) or more generally gaining skills for future employment (67%). Work experience is also seen as important (61%).
  • Students think there are four main factors that make for a successful career: doing something they are interested in (49%), being happy and fulfilled (48%), having stability (47%) and having a high salary (41%).
  • Almost two-thirds (64%) have a specific career in mind for when they graduate, compared to 18% who do not and 17% who are unsure. 
  • Around three-quarters (72%) intend to go into a career directly related to their degree subject. 
  • Two-thirds (35%) intend to spend one to two years in their first role. Around a quarter (24%) intend to spend over three years, compared to 19% who intend to spend two to three years, 18% who will spend six months to a year and just 3% who intend to spend less than six months.

Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:

These results show students feel confident about finding work, but anxious about starting their career. This anxiety has been there since before the current pandemic for many students, but for almost a third the current circumstances have exacerbated these feelings. Universities need to provide as much support as they can for students who are entering the labour market in such uncertain times and employers need to be mindful of these results in their hiring processes. 

The polling also shows a number of misconceptions that students have about the labour market. Most expect to go into a career directly related to their degree subject, while employers tend to see subject of study as less important than the skills they have gained. Students expect to only spend a short time in their first graduate job, when research shows that many stay in their first role for longer than expected. University careers guidance should seek to tackle these misconceptions, so students are better informed about their future careers.

Michelle Craig, Marketing Manager UKI at JobTeaser, said:

The outcomes of the survey highlight why students need now, more than ever, to have access to career guidance from both university services and employers in order to be reassured, better prepared and to navigate this increasingly uncertain world of work. Although many students know what they are looking for in their career, it may be more challenging to make that a reality and, as a sector, it is something we all need to play a part in supporting.

As students increase their online activity, it is now critical that the digital offering provided by careers services puts user experience at its centre to ensure student satisfaction, engagement and, ultimately, graduate success.

In the Foreword to the report, Jonathan Black, Director of Oxford University Careers Service, writes:

Students graduating this year could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking they have lived against a backdrop of uncertain and threatening events: the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent wars, the 2008 financial crisis, the turmoil and division of Brexit, and throughout the period, an increasingly obvious climate crisis. Now, along comes a global pandemic that is beginning to make the previous environment look almost benign and limited.

This HEPI report confirms that students’ familiarity with uncertainty is measurable by the fact that the majority of respondents say their perceptions haven’t changed solely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They remain generally positive about their future – perhaps the optimism of youth who either don’t know or don’t believe the predictions or maybe they see opportunities in the changes to come.

This report forms a useful benchmark of how much the pandemic is changing students’ views of their career. The extent, scale, and life of this pandemic and its accompanying economic shock are only just emerging, and there could be a very long way to go before we return to a “new normal”.

Notes for Editors

  1. Wave 8 of the HEPI/YouthSight Monitor was answered by 1,039 full-time undergraduate students and undertaken between the 27th March and 1st April 2020. Weights have been used to ensure the sample is representative by age, gender and university type.
  2. The margin of error is + / – 3% for students. This is calculated at a 95% confidence level. Respondents received a £1.50 Bonus Bond gift voucher for answering these questions and others on a different topic.
  3. The full results are available in a spreadsheet from HEPI.
  4. This report has been kindly sponsored by JobTeaser but editorial control was retained by HEPI. JobTeaser’s mission is to prepare the new generation to reach their full potential, embrace the future with optimism and make their mark on the world. In order to achieve this goal, they have created an online ecosystem of universities and employers around the needs of students and recent graduates including an innovative, free of charge career service platform for universities. 
  5. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

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