Bringing together the views of students, employers and careers professionals, the Careers 2032 report offers a fascinating insight into the careers support students and graduates will need in the future. But in reality for most AGCAS members, the future has already begun.
The report highlights a number of issues that careers services have been grappling with for a few years. However, the impact of these issues and careers services’ response to them have sped up during the pandemic. By consolidating the views from student unions and employers with those of careers services we can see not only the issues but the need for collaboration to address them.
At the AGCAS Heads of Service conference in January, we found that the two most important themes in 2022 for careers service leaders were academic alignment and metrics.
Academic alignment or embedding employability
Increasingly over the last few years, we have seen careers services leading their institution to take an integrated approach to graduate employability. Although, as the report suggested, in some institutions, the approach to embedding employability into the wider student experience can still depend on careers service relationships with a few enthusiastic academics.
Others have taken a more strategic approach, for example, City, University of London is embedding career focused education and professional experience into the core curriculum of every undergraduate programme; this is a multi-million-pound, whole institutional change project.
Careers professionals are considering how to support their diverse student bodies with limited budgets. Many institutions are looking to scale their services to support most of their students through embedding support into the wider student experience, focusing their more specialist interventions for the harder to reach student groups.
The report found that 98 per cent of careers professionals who responded to the survey felt that students not engaging with career development activities and support was the priority issue. AGCAS members have reported a drop in student engagement during the autumn term, countering the increase in student engagement many saw during the earlier stages of the pandemic.
27 per cent of students surveyed for the report felt that the biggest obstacle to their future careers’ success is not knowing what field to go into. This hard-to-reach group of students are often reluctant to engage with the careers service and would often benefit most.
As well as the Graduate Outcomes Survey, which records the employment outcomes of graduates from UK higher education institutions 15 months post-graduation, careers services are increasingly collecting data from current students to understand where they are with their career readiness and then developing interventions for the students needing the most support. Career registration, for example, is used extensively across the sector. This involves two to four career-focused questions being included in registration and re-enrolment data to track the development of student employability, predict employment outcomes, and evaluate the effectiveness of employability strategies and interventions.
Supporting diverse student populations
AGCAS members are very aware that students do not enter university with the same level of social capital. During the pandemic, the move to online enabled careers services to enhance existing work with their alumni department colleagues to engage a wider range of alumni to network and support current students and recent graduates, helping them to see themselves in alumni from similar backgrounds, and gain insights into real-life examples of what might be possible.
Across the sector we are seeing increased collaboration to support our diverse student populations, working with employers to help them to recruit and retain diverse talent. For example, the Inclusive Futures virtual careers fair – a collaboration between the universities of Greenwich, Hertfordshire, Kingston, London Metropolitan, West London & Westminster – enables employers to connect with their diverse students. Collectively they have over 100,000 students from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds (54 per cent underrepresented minority ethnic groups; 19 per cent black students; 35 per cent mature learners and 10 per cent registered as having a disability).
Freelancing, self-employment and entrepreneurship
Careers services are increasingly supporting students who are planning less traditional career paths. Those who are looking to freelance, be self-employed or set up their own business can access support via their careers service, for example, during the pandemic, Bath Spa University offered grants to finalists and graduates to help them create a side hustle and keep a foot in the creative industries sector as it recovers following the pandemic.
Enabling students to buy equipment, materials or a software licence could be the difference between working in a creative role or not. At the time, just keeping a presence in the creative industries sector and maintaining a network was critical for future success. The University of Arts, London supports a shop to enable their students to sell their work, developing the commercial skills necessary to support a freelance career.
Importance of collaboration
This research has identified the importance of collaboration between all the stakeholders. Careers professionals are working with academic colleagues, employers and, increasingly, students themselves to embed support for students and graduates into the wider experience. AGCAS members have ever been, and remain open to, learning, developing, and flexing delivery in response to changing stakeholder needs, demonstrating agility when faced with new challenges – in two, five, or ten years – to evolve provision accordingly.
By 2032, if we are to support students and graduates into worthwhile careers then we will see even more collaboration. However, as the research notes, careers services need to be adequately resourced to enable them to collaborate and continue providing the full range of extensive support on offer (77 per cent feel that budget cuts are an issue today, and 88 per cent think it will be an issue in 2032).
The challenge of technology
The roundtables of careers service leaders identified a common thread. While there was much discussion of the benefits of technology to aid service efficiency, such as automating processes and using artificial intelligence to augment student support, they also acknowledged the potential risks and limitations that this brings.
Participants also noted that there needs to be institutional investment not just in technology to aid careers service delivery but also in staff training to learn and manage the technology. Roundtable participants also commented that after nearly two years of mainly virtual delivery, they are seeing evidence of online fatigue amongst students. While students are engaging with online support, many are showing a clear preference for face-to-face experiences.
Going forward, while AGCAS member services recognise the benefits of online delivery, they are planning a hybrid approach and blended learning. While some activities have worked better online, digital poverty still risks leaving some students and graduates behind. There remains the need for in-person interactivity, to preserve the human element with meaningful engagement.