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Employability Blog Series: Three Policy Turning Points that Changed the Higher Education Employability Agenda

  • 11 March 2022
  • By Lizzy Woodfield and Rachel McIntosh

The second in this weekly series of blogs on the issue of employability was written by Lizzy Woodfield, Policy Advisor, and Rachel McIntosh, Director of Employability, at Aston University.

Higher education institutions are being held ever more accountable for their graduates’ employment prospects and taking on more proactive roles in shaping and stimulating employment prospects in their local areas, each with their distinct economic challenges and sectoral strengths. How did we get here? Looking back over the last decade of higher education policy and regulation in England, we identify three distinct turning points: first, value for money and the provision of information about employability; second, regulating graduate outcomes; and third, meeting future and technical skills needs. These turning points encompass substantial policy and regulatory agendas, such as the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Office for Students regulatory framework, as well as a myriad of developments in data.

Turning Point One: Value for money and the provision of information The 2011 White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, is largely remembered for sweeping student finance and number control reforms, but it also made significant interventions on employability, including commissioning the influential Wilson Review on collaboration between business and universities. Perhaps most significant in shaping what was to come after the White Paper was its emphasis on the provision of information to prospective students about employment prospects. Point 11 in the White Paper’s Executive Summary stated:

We will radically improve and expand the information available to prospective students, making available much more information about … graduate employment prospects.

Employment made up a significant component of the ‘Key Information Set’, established in 2012, and its more recent iterations, Unistats and Discover Uni.

As the tuition fee regime changed, graduate prospects, and their salaries, became universities’ business. This led to significant investment in employability including large-scale curriculum work, a greater focus on work experience and work-based learning, and bespoke programmes to support graduates. New executive level roles emerged which were focussed on employability and graduate outcomes.

Fast forward to 2015, and what was to become the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was promised in the Conservative Party Manifesto. The Manifesto stated that the Framework would ‘require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates’.

The Small Business and Enterprise Act 2015 enabled the Government to link higher education and tax data; thus, the provision of Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data was made possible. It remains a key feature of the data landscape and its influence in policymaking appears strong. Some fear an overemphasis on salaries serves to devalue certain degrees and careers, for example in the creative arts, and point to its limitations, such as the significant time-lag which makes it less helpful in informing student decisions.

The 2016 White Paper, ‘Higher Education: Success as a knowledge economy’, revealed the details of the TEF. Employment outcomes featured strongly across both the ‘core’ and ‘supplementary’ metrics. 

The prominence of employment outcomes in the TEF was controversial, with Dame Shirley Pearce’s 2019 independent review hearing ‘strong views’ that it was too focused on employment and did not capture the wider social and cultural benefits of higher education. The review went on to recommend that graduate outcome metrics should be broader and control for region of employment. 

Most significantly, though, the White Paper set out plans to establish a new higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS).

Turning Point Two: Regulating student and graduate outcomes 

Two of the OfS’s four primary regulatory objectives relate to progression from higher education. As well as funding projects aimed at identifying and sharing good practice, like the ‘Graduate Re-tune’ project which sees Birmingham City University and Aston University work in partnership with Jobcentre Plus to tackle graduate unemployment and under-employment, the OfS has regulatory levers at its disposal to achieve these objectives.

One of these is the TEF, which we now know will be brought into closer alignment with the OfS’s revised approach to regulating student and graduate outcomes. The details of how this will be achieved were published by the OfS in January 2022. 

Another key regulatory mechanism, Access and Participation Plans, have in recent years had a stronger focus on progression. Institutions must analyse their performance across the whole student lifecycle, and where there are significant gaps in outcomes (including at employment) for different student groups, they must agree ambitious targets to narrow them. 

Guidance from Government issued to the OfS in 2021 set out the need for further emphasis on progression, particularly for less advantaged students. A document on the future of access and participation stated:

There has been a strong focus on ensuring more people can get into higher education, but not always as much focus in ensuring that the courses they are admitted to are genuinely high quality, with support for students to … develop the skills and knowledge that will lead to graduate employment or further study …

Underpinning both access and participation plans and the TEF is Quality and Standards Condition B3, which sets out that ‘the provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers and/ or enable further study’. For the first time, the OfS will set challenging, minimum ‘numerical thresholds’ for student and graduate outcomes, which will shine a light on the proportion of students progressing to managerial or professional employment, or further study, at a distinctly granular level. No longer will shaky performance, for example at subject level, be masked by good provider-level graduate outcomes overall. The OfS is also placing less emphasis on benchmarking, with the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill proposing specific provisions to enable this. The OfS has stated:

We do not accept that students from underrepresented groups should be expected to accept lower quality, including weaker outcomes, than other students. We therefore do not bake their disadvantage into the regulatory system by setting lower minimum requirements for providers that typically recruit these types of students.

Yet, it is widely accepted that considerable geographic disparities affect graduates, with ex-industrial areas and coastal towns having lower-paid graduates and fewer graduates in highly-skilled jobs. Universities in these areas face a tension in balancing their dual responsibilities: encouraging mobility and supporting their graduates into well-remunerated jobs, and in their civic roles which encourage the pursuit of graduate retention and local economic development. 

Turning Point Three: Responding to future and technical skills needs

resurgence in technical skills is seen as key in supporting Government’s latest overarching policy objective, levelling up. The 2021 White Paper, ‘Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth’, suggests the skills system has been ‘very efficient at producing graduates but has been less able to help people get the quality technical skills that employers want’.  

Higher education’s long-established role in developing technical skills for economically-important sectors is often under-recognised, but the Government has shown its desire for the sector to up their game. Funding has been made available to encourage place-based collaborations, as in the case of Department for Education-backed Institutes of Technology. These are partnerships between employers, further education colleges and universities, brought together to meet the academic and technical skills needs of future jobs in regionally important sectors such as advanced manufacturing, as is the case for the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Institute of Technology

Government’s resetting of the parameters of access and participation plans means universities are now encouraged to support students into a range of routes, including further education, apprenticeships, and higher technical qualifications.

Universities have long since worked hand-in-glove with employers to fill specific skills needs, technical or otherwise. Universities involve employers in determining course content and use labour market intelligence to inform the introduction of new courses. Savvy universities consult with employers about their future skills needs to inform their strategies, and they involve employers in bringing the curriculum to life via cases studies, as part of judging panels for student activities and as mentors for students and graduates. 

Policy and regulatory changes have pushed graduate employability much more into focus, and there is much to welcome about this focus. Developing employable graduates – with the required mix of technical, academic, and ‘soft’ skills, along with valuable work experience – is resource intensive, but it is worth the investment.

Yet, in a sector that is increasingly financially stretched – and in which we now know that tuition fees will be frozen for the foreseeable future – we will find employability responsibilities more challenging to achieve. This, in turn, may hamper the sector’s ability to deliver the skills needed to meet the wider policy challenges the country faces.


See HEPI’s recent blog post, ‘On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Call to Action for the UK Higher Education Sector’ . Dr Uilleam Blacker from UCL shares how the UK can better support Ukrainian students and academics.

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