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One aspect of student debt really doesn't add up

Why aren't students more demanding when it comes to employability?

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | March 26, 2016 | Students

By Andrew George and Zahir Irani 

Fees have made the importance of getting a 'return' transparent. There might be high expectations around accommodation, facilities, teaching - but little angst over support to make the transition to graduate level employability. 

Current figures from the Office of National Statistics show that around a half of graduates are in a 'non-graduate' level job. Similarly, destination figures show around 50% of new graduates in some kind of recognised ‘professional’ job after six months. That's no failure on the part of graduates, that's just the market and - increasingly - the reality of a modern working life. It’s not as straightforward as following a career path or sticking to one line of advice anymore; it’s often about zig-zagging from one opportunity to another, one sector to another, some jobs with career progression, some more temporary - but are maybe more rewarding or act as a stronger springboard to a 'better' role. For others, a portfolio route allows for a careful balance between a vocation and roles that pay the bills.

We see this at Brunel University London where students in the Arts and Humanities express an interest in accounting. Here they seek to develop a skill set around which they can charge a fee, namely charging to do a self-assessment for others. Despite the pressures, students aren’t pushing perhaps enough for support on employability, so it looks like HE will need to pull them along with new and creative means. We need to equip students to deal with the work environment, giving them the skills, attitudes and opportunities to be flexible and resilient. Giving them the best chance to get into work and stay employed through developing long term successful careers. 

Traditional career centres don’t always offer the right kind of help and would benefit from involving more expertise from those that work in industry, together with offering more immediate job offerings than long term career opportunities

Traditional career centres don’t always offer the right kind of help and would benefit from involving more expertise from those that work in industry, together with offering more immediate job offerings than long term career opportunities. Universities continue to be more like knowledge repositories, opening up horizons to all those possibilities but simply providing technical knowledge to their students. 

Rather than the Destination of Leavers from higher education statistics that collects data six months after graduation. We should perhaps track graduates as graduates bounce from a non-graduate job to a career (and vice-versa) and make progress on through in life, as has been done in USA through the tax system. Many universities run their own job shop. But that’s different, the emphasis is always on casual work, helping with the 'needs must', as a temporary diversion and not stepping stones going forward after graduation through career opportunities or job prospects. 

Career centres could be rethinking their offerings and approach, making sure that their service meets the needs of fee-paying students that range from wanting to start paying back their loans through to fulfilling their career aspirations. That means challenging the whole ‘job readiness’ debate, moving on from just passing on employability skills to playing an active role in getting them work - using employment to enhance employability. It’s a cultural shift, but career services could imitate recruitment companies in the private sector, their structure and ways of operating, potentially also offering a community service. It should be easy for HE by comparison, because we’re in touch with students throughout their university life, can develop deep relationships and tailored services. 

After all, Universities have already been involved with organising their placements and internships. Coventry has the future works, its own commercial recruitment consultancy which looks for local opportunities for students, graduates and postgrads. At Brunel University London we’ve trialled activities to support transitions from level to level, focusing minds on what they've learnt, what the next challenges are likely to be (whether that's studying, placements or leaving) and what they need to do to progress.

We need to start asking whether employability can be a voluntary activity, relying on students looking ahead

The programme is based around a Brunel Festival that takes place at the end of each academic year, including a whole programme of personal development for students to prepare actively for the coming year: a boot camp to prep for placements, writing skills, using social media for networking, alumni prep. We’ve now even starting up a scheme in the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences to offer pro bono-type clinics, giving students the chance to test themselves and get real-life experience of tackling problems by giving practical advice to the general public. Legal advice to begin with, and then aiming to grow to accounting, marketing, how to put on an event - with input from students and academics across departments, not only from vocational areas.

We need to start asking whether employability can be a voluntary activity, relying on students looking ahead. The objection is often that there’s not enough time in the curriculum for employability - but that isn’t true. Do we want to consider making such initiatives mandatory, with activities becoming credit bearing to promote [some might say force] engagement? So much of the best of student life is about living in the moment, but leaving employability to the last minute is becoming less and less an option and might mean you struggle with employment.

About the authors: 

Andrew George is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and International), Brunel University London.

Zahir Irani is Professor of Sustainable Business Operations, Founding Dean of College (Business, Arts and Social Sciences.

W: www.brunel.ac.uk

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