Asterix, Graduate Outcomes, and the squeezed student middle

Martin Edmondson highlights how difficult it will be to understand graduate employment patterns post-Covid.

I loved Asterix books. In fact I still do. I loved them as a child and then went back and rebought them all when I was at least 30, and re-read them. I was really sad to hear recently of the death of the brilliant illustrator Uderzo.

Tenuous introductions aside, we are set to live for a long time with caveats and asterisks on all the main sources of data and measures we have used to evaluate university and student/graduate education and employability performance. Some may carp from the back that all these metrics and league tables always had an asterisk anyway, but hear me out.

Current focus

Understandably the primary focus of universities at the moment is on the two ends of the spectrum.

The class of 2020 leavers are graduating into a really tough labour market, graduate vacancies are down around 12 per cent (ISE data) and general job board vacancies down around 60 per cent (ONS data). In addition, quite a few of the students who got on to graduate schemes have had places deferred.

When it comes to the potential new student intake universities are understandably concerned about incoming students who may or may not defer entry, and who every university is going to fight for to make up for financial shortfalls. There is also great uncertainty over the shape of the university experience at the start of this autumn term, and how that particularly might affect freshers who miss out on the traditional (and significant) social sheep dip start that is the first few weeks of university.

These are existential issues for the universities, and massively important life transition times for the students, so these areas should have our considerable attention. However, there is a real danger of ignoring a squeezed middle of students who arguably will be more significantly and negatively affected.

The challenge for the squeezed middle

Students in their middle years of university have already lost nearly half a year of the delivery they expected, that is no-ones fault and universities have moved remarkably quickly to switch delivery of both course content and wider student support online. However, that still means that these students are likely to see the most overall disruption – compounded by a number of other factors:

  • Labour market entry – 2020 is clearly a tough year to graduate from a labour market perspective, but the signs for 2021 aren’t a great deal better. Employer data suggests large numbers of deferrals of class of 2020 graduate jobs (rather than reneging) meaning that there will be less vacancies next year, plus many economic forecasts do not see the overall economy improving until the latter part of next year.
  • Loss of work experience – Students entering second and third year are typically those seeking and gaining work experience in the form of internships and placements. ISE data shows that these have been even harder hit than graduate hiring – so will be considerably harder to come by for universities and students. Arguably the new intake of students will be looking for this work experience when economies have normalised somewhat
  • Mixed delivery model – These students face a 3 (or 4) year experience where they started with traditional in person delivery, shifted to a short notice online delivery model, then might complete their studies with a hybrid of the two. Perhaps this will inadvertently develop resilience and adaptability, but it also is arguably a more compromised experience than the class of 2020 who had a predominantly straightforward university environment

What has this got to do with an asterisk?

Whilst these are challenging times for all these student groups, these various effects will also knock on into metrics and data for a long time to come, especially into the Graduate Outcomes survey. The first tranche of GOS data is due out in mid June (having been delayed a few times) and is increasingly being badged as “experimental”, which is something of a euphemism, as it would be fair to say its had a difficult debut. As such the first GO data already has an asterisk, it now appears that the next few years will need one too:

  • Class of 2018 GOS*…..surveyed Sept 2019….survey out June 2020…. *experimental
  • Class of 2019 GOS*….surveyed Sept 2020…survey out April 2021… *still experimental with some Covid-19 effect
  • Class of 2020 GOS*…..surveyed Sept 2021….survey out April 2022…. *hopefully not experimental with a major Covid-19 effect
  • Class of 2021 GOS*…..surveyed Sept 2022….survey out April 2023….*major Covid effect

And this pattern of asterixes could arguably continue for a few years beyond that – given the dangers to the current middle year students.

What might universities do?

The fact that the data will have an asterisk should not be seen as a reason to diminish focus on employability of students and graduates. On one level there is a “get out of jail free” card around TEF and Graduate Outcomes that universities could play for the next few years, but there is a far greater social and civic responsibility to ensure that these squeezed middle students get an enhanced and specific employability support offer.

They need provision that is less reliant on placements and work experience in their traditional forms, and perhaps that means a doubling down of employability embedded in the curriculum. The development of graduate attributes far more consciously and meaningfully in all areas of curriculum, with new models of work experience that are shorter, sharper and better suited to a remote working world. It could also potentially means universities developing their own real time measures and markers of employability, and holding themselves accountable to them as a demonstration of student focus and value – given the national data will be so heavily caveated.

There’s a particular danger that a “well meaning” newspaper will directly compare DLHE with graduate outcome to say that graduates are less employable at 15 months than at 6 months a few years back. It’s an eye-catching finding, but our asterixes add another layer to the amount of nonsense that saying as much will represent.

In conclusion this a situation that opens up many opportunities for innovation, and given the pressures on the squeezed middle and the starting and ending cohorts, now is the time to redouble and refocus university energy in these areas.

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