This blog was kindly contributed by Lucy Haire, Director of Partnerships at HEPI.
On the eve of the publication of the HEPI Policy Note with Handshake, How can you help me? Students’ perspectives on careers services and employment, a group of university careers service and mission group leaders, an Office for Students (OfS) representative and senior executives from Handshake gathered with colleagues from HEPI, for a roundtable to explore the implications of the report’s findings and practical next steps. While this short blog does not capture every aspect of the rich and wide-ranging discussions which took place under the Chatham House Rule, it offers five key ideas thrown up by the thirty-strong group of experienced and passionate professionals.
Prospective students must be informed about the likely outcomes for a given course to enable them to make informed choices before applying or enrolling. Transparency is the watchword here, and it must be accompanied by advice and guidance to enable those thinking of enrolling on a course to interpret the data. Helpful data can include details about alumni employment paths and their salary trajectories. Investment in careers services to help school and college leavers, as well as first- and second-year undergraduates (the groups least likely to have approached their universities’ careers service according to the NUS poll used to inform How can you help me?) is essential.
Taking the Government’s policy paper Inclusive Britain as an underpinning backbone along with journalist Amol Rajan’s recent documentary series for the BBC, How to crack the class ceiling, as additional lenses through which to understand disparities in experiences, universities and colleges should find ways to ensure that under-represented groups and regions are given opportunities for placements and work experience which genuinely give them a leg up. This was cuttingly summed up as ‘Primark versus Professional’ work-based opportunities, with privately educated students and those with a more privileged hinterland tending to have far stronger personal professional networks to tap into, while those with less social and economic capital often have to make do with less rich experiences. This correlates with one of the key findings of the HEPI/ AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES). One of the aims of the Handshake platform is to help students build their networks and understanding of the work opportunities available no matter what their background.
A recurring theme during the evening was concern about the new B3 regulations which threaten to defund courses which have poor retention rates, and which do not result in alumni taking up typical managerial or professional jobs. While one roundtable guest pointed out that continuation and progression rates are generally less good for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, HEPI has previously covered the fact that UK universities have very low non-continuation rates. Our roundtable guests were reminded of the case of Norland College a higher education institution which provides degrees for students hoping to find a job as a nanny or in other early years settings which may not qualify as a graduate job according to the new OfS regulations.
More than once, the notion that current students, and especially those born into ‘Gen Z’ and after, expect or even want to secure what might be deemed traditional graduate-level jobs was explored. The limitations of the data collected about what jobs and incomes graduates have secured a year or two after leaving higher education have been well rehearsed, such as the fact that students who become self-employed or begin a slow-burn career in music or visual or performing arts, and oftentimes academia as well, may well take longer to earn enough, say, to start paying back a student loan. Another angle taken at this roundtable was the idea that students did not necessarily want the kind of career which might have been in the back of the minds of those who planned the current student loan system. The Policy Note hinted at this with 69 per cent of students responding to NUS polling saying that they did not want to see reduced access to student finance for those opting for courses with poor employment prospects.
A collective gasp welcomed the fifth idea, easily the stand-out suggestion of the evening for its novelty and ingenuity. While huge effort, resources and planning have typically gone into students securing work experience, placements and (ideally paid) internships, albeit stymied for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t hear about faculty shadowing their alumni to see which skills are being used, and which are still needed, in the workplace. If these kinds of academic staff placements happened at scale, it would be easier to explain how the content academic staff teach their students in college is relevant in the world of work.
Universities and higher education colleges of all types are in the broadest sense careers services in their totality. As well as offering specialist advice and guidance for specific jobs, roles and careers, they offer their students the opportunity to career around intellectually, exploring new ideas, concepts and company which will equip them well for life after courses, whatever direction that may take.