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A renewed focus on employability: Reflections on our third oral evidence session

Mark Blythe, Chairman and Founder of Group GTI, reflects on our third oral evidence session on employability

The Student Futures Commission’s third oral evidence session, and its first in person, took place at the University of Birmingham. Focusing on questions around employment and employability, the Commission heard a lively discussion with input from universities, careers service leaders, employers and business groups.

We are in an era where employability is rapidly rising in priority and status within universities. I would like to thank all our witnesses for bringing such excellent ideas on a topic I, and my fellow commissioners, am passionate about, and one which we know is so important to students.

We welcome a renewed focus on employability in UK universities.

One of our standout findings from the Commission to date has been an overall lack of student confidence. As was covered in the Commission’s interim report ahead of the start of the academic year, students feel they are a cohort with ‘fake grades’ that might hurt their future employment prospects. Overwhelmingly, they are downcast about their job prospects and in the strength of graduate employment opportunities. In a poll of over 4000 students the Commission ran at the start of the pandemic, only 50% of current undergraduates were confident about the job market. With this in mind, our final oral evidence session focussed on the importance of employability and employment to student futures – and we were delighted to see how central this issue was considered to be across all of the institutions represented by witnesses.

There is reason for optimism around some of the changes brought on by the pandemic.

For Professor Kathy Armour, from the University of Birmingham, whilst there was a forced push to digital during the pandemic, many universities have now retained their online material (in addition to face-to-face teaching) as it benefited many students. Ultimately, the future workplace is also grappling with how to make sense of this new normal, so while it is clearly not something people would have chosen, there are positives that students have gained in terms of the skills they will need in a workplace that has also changed dramatically. Kathy was also positive about the work they have done with academics on employability – including with faculties that traditionally have not been very vocationally attuned.

Universities are at their best when working with local employers to support a thriving local economy, which can in turn offer jobs to their graduates.

Henri Murison from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership argued that work experience at university must be a central part of the new ‘levelling up’ dynamic. He welcomed universities integrating more with employers, particularly observing how some post-1992 institutions have used this to increasingly compete with traditional Russell Group universities. Witnesses engaged in a lively debate about whether universities should explicitly aim to keep a high proportion of their graduates in the local area – with some arguing that it was choice rather than the outcome that was more important. Henri also highlighted the issue of scale and types of employer engagement – as in a given local economy, placements, and particularly the scale of placements needed, may simply not be available for all students, and proactive engagement is therefore vital.

Sheffield Hallam Vice-Chancellor, Sir Chris Husbands, added some further nuance to the picture, pointing out that Sheffield Hallam do map data on local jobs and can see that whilst they have good retention for first jobs post-graduation in Sheffield, this stops being the case for second jobs. Fundamentally, he argued, that has to do with the structure of the economy of the UK rather than what an individual institution can affect.

The world of work is changing and employability skills are changing with it.

Chris Husbands also spoke about an increasing focus on areas of the economy that are SME and start up dominated – for example digital, creative arts and fashion. He said we need to be careful not to project assumptions onto graduates which may not be true anymore. This chimed with conversations witnesses had had on two excellent tours of Birmingham and Aston universities – where there was much discussion around ‘portfolio’ working and how a model of one full time job was increasingly not being considered the default by students.

Dr Joe Marshall from the National Centre for Universities and Business echoed these comments, highlighting that whilst we have gone through a profound change that everyone is adjusting to, it is also true that there was already talk pre-pandemic of a profound change taking place around automation and digitisation. Of course, it is important that universities embrace these changes and what they mean for employability skills, which they are doing. But Joe pointed out it is also true that employers need to be exposed to, and can benefit from, some of the new thinking and approach from students, and one of the best ways to do this is via high quality work experience or placements.

There was strong agreement that employability is, or will soon be, at the ‘top table’ for all universities and that this will have significant impacts going forward, including on budget, resources, and academic engagement.

Colin Chapman from Aston argued the pandemic has caused innovations which have been forced on universities, but that the logical next step for them is to embed these. This includes changing the narrative around employability and cementing it as a focus within a given university. Colin highlighted that whilst there is still a lot of disruption in the sector, it is easier than ever to track progress as students graduate, so universities have a clear datapoint through which to measure their success. And because the careers of tomorrow don’t necessarily exist today, with the skills graduates had at 21 arguably becoming outdated relatively quickly, universities will increasingly need to ask themselves what their retraining package is to adapt to that new way of working.

Facilitating good quality interaction between employers and students is vital.

Across both our visits and witness input it was evident there were many excellent local examples of employer engagement already in action, but awareness and communication sometimes at the institution level, and certainly nationwide, could be improved.

Natasha Porter from Unlocked reminded us of the importance of giving students access to a wide range of employers, and the opportunity to approach them both formally and informally. The move away from purely in-person careers activities to blended in-person, virtual and hybrid interventions should be an opportunity to increase access for all student groups and increase the number of potential employers students can speak to. However, without the right tools and without close and often bespoke collaboration between universities and businesses, this will inevitably be restricted. This also means enabling students to make connections from their discipline to the world around them, designed and delivered collaboratively with a range of external partners. Natasha also emphasised that the value of in-person events such as careers fairs should not be ignored in the face of digital alternatives. She felt that students could gain a lot of confidence from the typically informal conversations that they could have at physical events.

“We’d love to see much more emphasis put on having to engage with employers and skills for employment as a compulsory part of degrees.” – Natasha Porter, CEO of Unlocked Graduates

There is a particular need to support students with disabilities.

Geoff Layer, speaking in his role as Chair of the Disabled Students Commission, highlighted the excellent work they have been doing around the effect of the pandemic on disabled students. He said they had heard disabled students were concerned that the pandemic has left them feeling particularly exposed and argued that any focus on transitions to the workplace for students will need to be up front about additional challenges some students face when looking for work, and that it is important to take the lead in promoting inclusive recruitment practices that take account of reasonable adjustments. Students are not just looking for general advice linked to their disability but also specific to their impairment – i.e. how they can go through the process, what adjustments to ask for, and how to ask for them. In a survey for AGCAS 77% of universities said that they provide disability specific careers advice, but ongoing research by the disabled students commission found that only 7.9% of disabled students reported using this service in the past year.

A whole university approach is most effective in driving change.

Elaine Boyes from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services argued that a whole university approach to transition, mental health and employability is needed, as there are vital interplays between these areas and all of them fundamentally impact the experience of students. These should therefore be underpinned by a theme of belonging and active participation – rebuilding students’ sense of community and building back positive experiences as a result.

Mark Peace from Manchester Metropolitan University exemplified this as he described their successful RISE programme. He highlighted that accountability is how you drive real change – hence the design of their programme which formally credits students for additional activities taken on top of their existing study, such as volunteering in the community or part time jobs, and therefore incentivises experiences which support students’ employability prospects. Mark shared that their programme has proved particularly successful with students from disadvantaged groups.

“Education for the sake of education is a luxury for a lot of students” Dr Mark Peace, Academic Lead for Student Centred Curriculum, Manchester Metropolitan University

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