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What are university careers services doing to bridge the outcomes gap between white and BAME graduates?

  • 28 October 2020
  • By Gabi Binnie

This blog was kindly contributed by Gabi Binnie, Policy and Research Manager at AGCAS.

As we engage in discourse that acknowledges the past and looks to the future, Black History Month offers a timely reminder of the interventions needed across higher education to tackle the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) student attainment gap. In the HEPI report The white elephant in the room, the authors recommend that higher education institutions participate in the Race Equality Charter, do groundwork to facilitate conversations about race and avoid vague actions that are unlikely to effect change. These are excellent ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education, but another gap between Black and White graduates persists after they leave the institutions – an outcomes gap. As the first release of HESA’s Graduate Outcomes Survey has shown, fifteen months after graduating from university UK-domiciled graduates from BAME backgrounds are 8% less likely to be in full-time graduate employment than their White peers (54% versus 62%) and BAME graduates were also more likely to be unemployed than White graduates.

Making progress?

The reasons for this progression gap are complex. It is important to be mindful that progression rates vary between different ethnic groups and students may face intersecting barriers based on gender, socio-economic background or disability. BAME students are more likely to come from deprived areas, areas of low higher education participation, and low socio-economic backgrounds, and AGCAS research into the career-readiness of first year students found that, of those surveyed BAME students had lower social and cultural capital than their White peers. While careers services cannot eliminate structural inequality from society, they are working hard to understand the challenges facing BAME graduates. In AGCAS research from 2018, over half of careers services had developed targeted initiatives to support their BAME graduates, though we expect that this proportion has grown since then with the number of new initiatives started by AGCAS members. In 2019, Kingston University’s Careers Service and Access, Participation and Inclusion team began delivering workshops to staff across the University to shed light on the lived experiences of BAME students and staff. Using case studies developed with BAME students and staff, the workshops have helped White staff explore the challenges facing BAME students and how their identity affected their experiences at Kingston. In 2020 they launched ELEVATE, an accelerator programme for Black UK-domiciled students. The programme is designed to support and empower Black students in their career development, whilst also challenging employers to engage with Black students in a more meaningful way.

The OfS Challenge Competition: Improving Outcomes for Local Graduates has also funded members of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) to deliver interventions specifically to support BAME graduates seeking employment in their local area. The Graduate Workforce Bradford project, led by the University of Bradford, received funding to provide coaching to BAME graduates to support them to enter professional roles in Social Care, Engineering and Manufacturing, and the Public Services within the Bradford Metropolitan District, to work with employers in those sectors to address their recruitment, skills gap and diversity challenges, and to undertake action research to develop an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the extent of place and culture-based decision making in BME student and graduate career choices.

Equality and employment

In June, Rachel Hewitt argued for HEPI that ‘Employers need to do more to ensure their hiring practices are fair for all graduates and without discrimination’. The disparity between the proportion of ‘top degrees’ (first or a 2:1) achieved by BAME and White students could be one factor driving inequitable progression into graduate employment, with over 50% of employers surveyed by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) as part of their Inside student recruitment report (2019) setting a 2:1 minimum degree requirement. It is also possible that recruitment bias plays a role, despite recruiting candidates from a diverse range of ethnicities being a high priority for over 50% of employers surveyed, and 46% providing diversity training for staff involved in selection.

De Montfort University is using their OfS Challenge Competition funding to tackle the BAME business leadership gap in Leicester by developing an inclusive recruitment toolkit, accelerated BAME internship scheme and in-work mentoring programme for BAME graduates. Their project is taking a new approach by bringing students and local businesses together in professional conferences to co-learn and discuss topics such as unconscious bias and strengths-based recruitment techniques. 

Long-term vision

If universities are to meet their anti-racist and civic objectives, they need to extend their ambitions beyond tackling inequality for BAME students while they are studying and work with employers to close the achievement gap. Strong leadership, as recommended in the NUS and UUK’s #closingthegap report, and resource for research and initiatives are needed for careers and employability services to avoid vague actions which are unlikely to effect change, and implement bold new interventions that could truly improve outcomes for BAME graduates.

We recognise that providing additional resource to careers and employability services is currently unlikely to be an immediate priority list for university leaders as they respond to ‘here and now’ issues, such as student recruitment and retention, health and wellbeing of students, provision of study spaces, and student and staff safety. AGCAS research from September 2020 found that careers and employability services are already experiencing reductions in budgets and staff, and the majority expect a significant decrease in the income they generate during the 2020/21 academic year. Careers and employability professionals are concerned that without more support, the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 will further entrench existing inequalities between Black and White graduates.

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