How graduate employment focus has changed universities

Recent policy changes in the United Kingdom have ensured that employability activities are high on the agenda of all universities, rather than being a specialism of a few institutions, according to a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The report finds that careers services have become more embedded in the strategic role of the university, but this is often not accompanied by increased resources.

It also finds that students are getting involved with the careers service earlier during their studies and are more likely to actively seek out the support of the careers service.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute and author of the report, said: “Policy changes in recent years have led to employability being a mainstream activity across all universities, rather than the specialism of a few. While some may rail against the ‘employability agenda’, it is clear that universities are now better serving the interests of their students by supporting them through their transition into the workplace.”

The report, Getting on: Graduate employment and its influence on UK higher education, explores the recent focus by policy-makers, students and employers on getting graduates into professional jobs.

The paper examines the related policy changes and how these have changed the way universities operate. The policy changes include the introduction of the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset tracking graduates earnings, the Teaching Excellence Framework, the Access and Participation Plans, which place greater focus on students’ transitions out of university, and the approach of the new regulator in England, the Office for Students, which lists outcomes that “enrich [students’] lives and careers” as one of its four key objectives.

The policy changes have been influenced by policy-makers who are seeking to improve productivity in the workforce, and reduce the cost of higher education by better understanding which graduates pay back their student loans.

They have also been influenced by students, who enter university focused on what their future career path will be and have high expectations that higher education will help them to develop professional skills and gain experience relevant to their future employment.

According to the report, some criticism has been made of the increased focus on employability, largely by academics who believe it is taking away from the purpose of the university and having unintended consequences on the way universities operate.

Perceived as positive change

But the report’s analysis of a new survey of heads of careers services, conducted by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, shows these policy initiatives have led to changes in the way universities operate, and careers services within universities have largely seen this as a positive change, although different policies have had different levels of impact.

The key findings are:

  • • Three quarters (76%) of careers services have seen a change in student engagement with careers in the last three years, compared to 24% who have seen no change.

  • • 93% of careers services see the increased policy focus on graduate outcomes as positive, compared to 2% who see it as negative and 5% who see it as neither positive nor negative.

  • • The new Graduate Outcomes survey and the Office for Students’ Access and Participation Plans are having the greatest impact on how careers services operate, rather than graduate salary data. Some 69% of respondents list Graduate Outcomes as having the most impact, followed by 19% who stated Access and Participation Plans had the most impact. Only 2% say the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data is having the greatest impact.

  • • Just under half (45%) of careers services have seen an increase in funding to cover the additional demand, compared to 55% who have not.

The paper also contains qualitative analysis of the views of careers services, including how they, their university and students classify a successful outcome from university.

In the foreword to the report, Dr Bob Gilworth, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, writes: “This report is timely, as so many of these policy initiatives have come into play in a relatively short time. I warmly welcome the logic behind this piece of work.

“The premise is that higher education careers services provide a window into understanding institutional responses to the focus on employment outcomes, because they are likely to be at the heart of it. In general, the survey responses outlined here tend to illustrate this is the case.”

He said there is a strongly established and continuing trend of higher education careers services moving from “centralised to embedded and perhaps from ‘periphery’ to ‘core’” and the report highlights a generally positive perception of the increased emphasis on graduate employment.

“This is a very important and useful message for all concerned, but especially for policy-makers who may hold outdated views about the role and position of higher education careers services.”