It seems that no part of a university is more tangled up in the value for money debate than university careers services.
The Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data, which links tax and benefits data to education data, has allowed government to better understand graduates’ repayments of their student loans and the distribution of this across universities and courses. This has resulted in extensive discussion about which courses should be classed as “low value”, and in some cases, a call from influential think tank Onward for reduced access to these courses and government threatening a crackdown on low value degrees.
An outcomes-focused, metric-driven evaluation of higher education, through LEO, the new Graduate Outcomes survey and TEF has put university careers services – the HE professionals regarded as chiefly responsible for employability outcomes – front and centre of the university response. At the end of last year, HEPI worked with AGCAS, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, to undertake a research survey of 48 heads and directors of university careers services.
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Overwhelmingly, respondents said the impact of an increased focus on graduate employment outcomes on the role and position of university careers service had been positive (93 per cent), compared to only five per cent who said it had been neither positive nor negative and two per cent who said it had been slightly negative.
Respondents rated Graduate Outcomes as the policy intervention having the biggest impact on how services operate, followed by access and participation plans. Only two per cent of respondents identified LEO data as having the biggest impact on their way of operating to date.
Whilst some question the legitimacy of these metrics, there’s no doubt that students are increasingly conscious of what their higher education experience will do for their career. The careers services in this research reported increased engagement by students at an earlier stage in their higher education experience. In the 2019 HEPI and Unite Students The New Realists report, students rated getting “a job I’m passionate about” and “being financially stable” as their top priorities in life.
This change in student behaviour has meant that the employability of graduates has become a focal point for whole universities – not the sole, siloed responsibility of the careers service. Three-quarters of respondents (73 per cent) reported that employability was either included within or linked to the broader institutional strategy.
Despite this increased focus on employability, fewer than half (45 per cent) of the careers services featured in this research had received an increase in resource. Those that did often saw funding associated with particular projects, rather than an increased overall budget for staff. Careers services have turned to digital delivery and innovative approaches to try to bridge this gap, but this can be difficult as demand continues to increase for personal one-to-one interactions among students.
There are also differences in definitions of success in graduate outcomes. Institutions as a whole appear driven by metrics because of their influence on league table positioning and subsequent ability to recruit students. There were mixed views about the importance of salaries to students and graduates, but careers service leaders perceive “success” for students as being able to own their own choices, to give back to society and get into the career path of their choosing.
Careers services have a broad definition of success for their own performance, including measuring added value; getting students into careers that they want; developing graduate employability rather than employment outcomes; positive feedback from employers; supporting students into lifelong careers; and graduate satisfaction.
The employability value of a university education is clearly important to both students and policymakers, and therefore to universities and careers services. But there are risks to over-reliance on metrics, which often measure employment (a status at a fixed point in time) rather than employability (long-term improvement in employment options and related skills).
Policymakers overestimate the influence universities have on students’ employment prospects, with students from the most advantaged backgrounds often able to utilise their social capital to get the careers and salaries of their choice. An overconcentration on metrics can penalise the universities working hardest to improve access.
The focus of current government makes it likely that equating value for money with graduate outcomes is set to continue. But a university degree has a greater value than just a static employment measure at six months, fifteen months or five years after graduation. The wider lifelong transformational impact of education on students’ attitudes, values and behaviour will be increasingly important to measure the value of a degree for the next generation of students who appear to prioritise stability in their working life and may be more values-driven and ethical than previous generations.
In a cautious graduate labour market that will see increasing automation, casualisation and globalisation, as well as huge forecast growth in graduate numbers in the next ten years, intangible employability outcomes like creativity, entrepreneurialism and cultural awareness will be vital to prepare graduates for lifelong career success.