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13th September 2021

Stuart Thomson: ‘Universities need to protect and enhance their career offer’

There is no doubt that most people’s time at University goes past in a flash.  It is a heady time of friendships, socialising, expanded horizons and, of course, learning.  But the realisation soon dawns that attention has to be turned to getting a job. That’s when things start to get really difficult.

Universities must sell themselves to prospective students.  Most place an emphasis on the learning and wider life experiences that a student can look forward to when they study there.  There may even be a nod to how successful students are in finding jobs when they leave.  But such numbers are quite blunt and frankly don’t really reveal much about a students’ real job prospects.  What students really need are activist careers services that offer support from Day One.  Careers services are one of the most undervalued parts of university life but ever increasing in importance.

There is no doubt that the government recognises the value of education.  It is constantly looking to help support students at schools and in further education. It sets standards and makes demands of institutions, not least for careers support.  For a large part higher education is no different but the case is different when it comes to careers services, where universities are left to their own devices.  While higher education institutions are not actually required to provide careers advice, they clearly must because students expect it.

There is help and support available, so each university does not have to find its own way.  There is also help and support available to students. For instance, the Office for Students has issued a “Graduate Employment and Skills Guide” and has offered a local graduates competition to help graduates into local employment opportunities.

The government has put in additional investment in the National Careers Service.  The Department for Education in Westminster is working with Universities UK, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the Institute of Student Employers, the Office for Students, and others to understand what else they can do to support graduates entering the labour market.

The Higher Education Careers Services Unit supports the work of careers and employability professionals and their institutions and AGCAS is a membership organisation for higher education student career development and graduate employment professionals. 

But the reality is that the picture remains a mixed one.  When political inquiries are undertaken into the careers support available then the picture that comes back doesn’t always reflect well on the university system.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility issued a report in 2017, “The Class Ceiling: Increasing Access to the Leading Professions”, which suggested that: “Universities should ensure careers services are a core part of the university support system and, in particular, target proven interventions at disadvantaged students to improve their awareness of career opportunities.”

This highlighted the varied quality of careers advice but also suggested that employers needed to be more proactive in working with universities as well.

There are often arguments about the balance between equipping students for the workplace and seeing education as a widening of horizons.  In other words, it shouldn’t just be about getting a better job.  But the reality, especially given the levels of debt that students come out of university with, is that there is an expectation that the institutions need to help students equip themselves for the world of work.

Universities must challenge themselves as to the types of job markets they are looking at – local, national, global?  And that will vary between courses as well.  Many educational institutions are focused on the inputs – the courses, the variety of learning, quality of teaching, the research base – but there needs to be an emphasis on the outputs for graduates as well.

The reality is that as universities come under the glare of government for how they have dealt with teaching during Covid, the money they pay their leadership teams etc, that makes more aspects of their operations open to government diktat.  This government isn’t averse to intervention so there is no reason to believe that the university sector should believe itself to be exempt.

So, careers services certainly need to empower individuals, offer mentoring, provide online skills for LinkedIn but also help improve personal productivity.

Universities also have to help students appreciate the importance of their careers service offer as well.  Most students only start thinking about these issues towards the end of their time at university.  The help and support from universities only comes in towards the end as well.  Instead, the careers advice should be built in from the very start.

The reality is that a student that is ready for the job market has a CV that allows them to stand out.  That means giving it attention throughout university life, not simply looking at it towards of the end of their study.

It is another pensions problem. One of those issues that we only start thinking about when, in reality, it is already too late.

Universities need to protect and enhance their careers offer.  They need to ensure that at a time of tight finances, especially post Covid, that careers services are not cut.

Built and financed properly, engaging with businesses, helping to challenge social mobility, a university’s career service can help to attract students looking to build a career and ensure a return on their investment.

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