From pathway to runway and lift off for employability

Pathway operators are becoming the unlikely force behind new initiatives in international student graduate employability. It is a phenomenon that deserves some applause since it reflects the needs of students, but it begs the question as to why universities are not doing the heavy lifting in an area that is critical for national competitiveness in the post-pandemic world.

The answers suggest that it may be time for more radical solutions to careers guidance and advice services.

CareerAhead (Study Group), CareerFirst (INTO University Partnerships), Career Core (Kaplan), Career Accelerator (Shorelight) and Professional (Navitas) are all variations on the same theme. Some are costlier and have more guarantees than others.

It is early days and this may just represent an opportunist response to student concerns in a period of economic uncertainty, rather than a long-term plan to support graduate employment. Serious, smart and strategic operators should be building in robust longitudinal measurement of job placements, career progression and comparative performance.

It is no secret that international students are highly focused on the return on investment they get from their expenditure on a degree overseas.

In 2016, Hobsons research indicated that four in 10 (40%) said they would go where there is high demand for employees and 38% would choose their study destination based on expected high earnings associated with the industry for which their degree prepares them. A 2021 QS study of students interested in studying in the US showed 54% said a high graduate employment rate was the most important metric they considered.

Failure to support graduate outcomes

The pathway providers' decision to take the initiative in this area may suggest that they have given up on the notion that their university partners are willing to provide what international students need or are capable of doing so.

One of the big selling points of the pathway providers has always been that, on arrival, students are "students of the university" with access to all the resources and facilities of the hosting institution. Any reasonable person would think that includes the careers advice and guidance services which are the institution's go-to resource for helping students get jobs.

Another underlying dichotomy is that the implicit purpose of getting a degree is that it is a route to having more choice in the career one follows. The need for private providers to charge extra money to ensure appropriate levels of support reflects the broader truth that a degree is no longer enough.

Institutions would do well to consider how this will begin to change the return-on-investment calculation made by students when choosing a university.

Universities may also be hoping that, just as they have handed their brands over to pathway providers and allow them to directly recruit students, they will not have to invest further in careers advice and guidance.

The low level of investment by the sector in graduate outcomes was laid bare by research from Tribal/iGraduate which showed that universities are spending over nine times as much on marketing as they are on career advice and support.

This is aligned with a collapse in data gathering around graduate outcomes that means decent comparative information from the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) will not emerge until 2023 – six years since the last meaningful data.

Even when the HESA numbers do arrive they are highly unlikely to provide any genuine insights into the outcomes of the 75% or more of international students who plan to return to their home country. If employability is to be a key battleground for countries, universities and pathway providers to prove their worth, this is a significant gap in data on which to build a reputation.

Alternative data collecting models are already being used by forward-thinking universities and demonstrate where individual universities are able to make a difference for their graduates.

Outsourcing careers services to meet need

Leading industry commentators have argued that "career services must die" and that would seem increasingly true, given the lacklustre support that most are able or willing to give to international students.

There is a real need for institutions to rethink their performance criteria and even for governments with ambitious international student recruitment targets to consider how national reputations can be made or broken. This may even be a good moment for higher education to pass their graduate and careers advice investment to private providers who are able to deliver both genuine support and an accurate measurement of performance.

It may seem radical, but there is evidence that career progress has become a highly nuanced, technologically advanced and competitive business where increasing numbers of graduates need every piece of support they can get.

It is clear that the world of work has become as oriented towards aggregators like ZipRecruiter, Indeed and others. Universities need good quality information to be able to orient their academic offerings to the changing needs of the market, but there is no reason to expect them to be experts in services to secure employment.

Outsourcing non-core business such as accommodation, pre-degree teaching and maintenance has come a long way and seen some substantial gains for the sector. Focusing on teaching, research and social impact is plenty for most institutions to be considering and the pace of change required when it comes to ancillary services will always be secondary to these core activities. There is a certain symmetry in providers of pathways to degree level education also becoming the runway to career success.

It could lead to the tantalising possibility of private providers also taking over aspects of alumni relations with a focus on networking to build job prospects rather than seeing development and fundraising as the point of staying in touch with ex-students.

It is only a short step from that to building and recruiting to boot camps and re-skilling and upskilling short courses. With imagination, ingenuity, care and private investment this might even become a radical reinvention of lifelong learning led by private providers to meet the skills requirements of ‘Global Britain’.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, and Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.