Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Employability: what is the university’s responsibility?

  • 11 October 2021
  • By Saskia Loer Hansen & Kathy Daniels

Saskia Loer Hansen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Engagement) and Professor Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (Engagement), Aston University.

The 2021/22 academic year has seen record numbers of young people starting undergraduate programmes in the UK. According to UCAS, on 30 June 2021 (the final deadline to apply for up to five courses) applicant numbers were up 4% compared to 2020.

Beneath that headline figure is further data which gives an insight into the demographics of those students. Tony Blair, writing in the Sunday Times on 19 September 2021, reported that the target for 50% of young people to attend university, set by his Government, has been met and that the percentage of students entering university from the lowest income families has increased from 11% in 1997 to 19% in 2014.

The Good University Guide 2022, published in the Sunday Times, gives more insights into the demographics of students. The contrast between universities is demonstrated by some of the figures. For example, 99.5% of students at Aston University come from a state school (excluding selective grammars), compared to 45.6% and 47.8% from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge respectively.

These demographics give an encouraging picture of widening participation in higher education, but also raise questions about employability opportunities. Do students from lower income families – and without the networks that they might have developed in the private education sector – struggle more to obtain graduate level jobs? What is the responsibility of the universities where they are studying to help them secure employment?

Chris Millward, the Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, gave the keynote address at the Institute of Student Employment student recruitment conference in June 2021. In his blog summarising his presentation he writes: ‘there is a strong link in England between where you come from, whether and where you go to university and your career prospects beyond that’.

However, engaging in higher education does give opportunities to students. The English Social Mobility Index, published by HEPI in 2020, looked at the ‘social distance’ travelled by students and the number of students transported. Bradford and Aston Universities led the way in this index, both being universities that have enrolments of over 50% from Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) quintiles 1 and 2 and achieving continuation routes of over 90% by these cohorts

This data and the changing demographics of students in UK universities gives some insight into the challenges relating to employability. Universities need to address these challenges by looking at all aspects of the education they provide.

  • How does the design of a degree programme and the way that the material has been assessed best prepare different segments of students for employment?
  • There is much talk of embedding employability in the curriculum. What does that mean, and does it work for all students?
  • Do some students need more support in taking the material that they are learning in the curriculum and articulating it when applying for jobs?
  • What is the impact of practical work experience, such as placements or industry sponsored projects, in building employability skills and graduate success?

In answering these questions, universities need to reflect on what the ‘levelling up’ agenda means for them. Universities contribute to socio-economic development in their regions and graduates with the right skills and attributes are an important contribution. However, according to a research report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies published in September 2021 at age 27 around 35% of graduates and 15% of non-graduates have moved away from the area where they lived at age 16. Those from higher socio-economic areas are more likely to move than those from more deprived backgrounds, meaning that poorer areas may not get the full benefit of graduate talent from local universities – a challenge when addressing levelling up across regions in the UK.

If we go back to Chris Millward’s work, he reports that, if all graduates are split into quintiles according to their earnings, all graduates in London are living in the highest quintile areas. All graduates in the North-East of England are in the lowest two quintiles. He suggests that we can start to alter this inequality by high-tariff universities recruiting more students from under-represented neighbourhoods and by colleges and universities working with businesses and the public sector to improve opportunities for students who want to live and work in the area where they grew up.

Universities also need to consider the changing needs of international students. The Graduate Route Visa gives international students the opportunity to stay and work in the UK for up to two years (three years for doctoral students) after graduation. It is too early to assess the impact of this visa as the first cohort of students qualified to take advantage of it in July 2021. However, all those involved in international student recruitment will know that the Graduate Route is a very attractive proposition to prospective students and raises firm expectations about students being successful in finding graduate level jobs on graduation. This brings additional responsibilities to universities. If international students come to the UK to study so that they can get meaningful employment, how do universities equip students to achieve this ambition? (On Thursday, 14 October 2021, HEPI and Kaplan are jointly hosting a free webinar on international students’ careers and employability as well as launching a new report on the same topic.)

All of these factors lead to a challenging situation for universities to address at a point when record numbers of students are entering higher education and the economy remains in COVID-recovery mode. It might be difficult to find answers to all the questions, but what is clear is that universities carry responsibility for the employment outcomes of their students, irrespective of the student’s background.

What are universities doing to meet this challenge? To explore this further, we are working with HEPI to put together a collection of essays looking at universities’ responsibility for employability. We are looking for case studies, explaining what universities and other bodies in the higher education sector are doing to nurture employability and employment outcomes which might inform other universities’ work. We are also looking for insights into the way that the needs of specific student demographic groups can be supported to achieve the outcomes that they dream of when they first start university.

Would you like to feature in this collection? If you have an idea for an essay you could write (1000-1500 words), please send a short summary to k.daniels1@aston.ac.uk by 1 November 2021. The aim is to have all essays written by the end of the calendar year, ready to be published in early 2022. We look forward to hearing from you and encourage a range of people to write in.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Fascinating article about an interesting subject that definitely needs further discussion and illumination.

    However, we will not achieve greater understanding unless we make it clear what the context of the discussion is and what the objectives are.

    At the moment, in the context of levelling up, we seem to be confused as to whether we want individuals who lived in deprived areas to:
    i) Go to higher grade Universities, and if so whether on exam merit or under special rules
    ii) Whether it is enough that the target group, who get a degree and improve their own prospects and earn more (by going to London) and become role models for their area of origin are free to go anywhere or must they be forced to go back to their roots?
    iii) Is there another way to improve the lot of deprived areas other than via state intervention?

    It seems to me that money will follow those that are able to earn it and get jobs where employers locate their activity.

    In a free world, this will not result in “levelling up” in Hartlepool (where I was born, moved to Manchester to study and London to work)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *