Following the recent confidence vote in the Prime Minister, the message from government has very much been about the need to get on with policy priorities – one of which is clearly “levelling up”.
While the original Levelling Up White Paper from February doesn’t offer much detail on the role of higher education providers, it does highlight persistent regional inequalities.
There’s data and analysis on UK graduate migratory and regional retention patterns. The White Paper highlights that Wales, the North East, and Scotland have a higher share of employed graduates who studied and worked in their domiciled region – and that these graduates are also more likely to be in non-graduate level jobs.
The White Paper acknowledges that “both economic and non-economic factors” determine graduate employability. In other words, graduate employability is both structurally (“the depth of local labour markets”) and individually (social factors) constrained.
The role of higher education
Obvious areas where universities and colleges can support the levelling-up agenda include graduate employment, and cultivating a sense (and pride) of place and opportunity. There’s a veritable feast of options to realise these benefits – from curriculum development to direct employer engagement activities and the organisation of regional graduate schemes.
Enabling regional employment and retention is not a new phenomenon to student support and careers teams.
In January 2020, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) created its Regionalisation Working Party to harness this expertise across the sector. The group is made up of at least one member from every English region and devolved nation in the UK and will look at the student experience touchpoints where the levelling-up agenda can show its face.
Careers teams across the UK have a long track record of developing regional employment schemes, and so for any institution they are a key partner to involve, consult, and resource in order to drive your regional strategies and plans.
Council and careers collaboration
Any institution and its careers team is well aware of the latest B3 Outcomes thresholds from OfS, while local councils want to reduce unemployment and retain skilled graduates. The two are obvious partners for a levelling up of collaboration, and the award-winning ERDF-funded Durham Internships and Collaborative Enterprise (DICE) project is just one example.
DICE is a collaboration between Durham University and Business Durham, the economic development arm of Durham County Council. Since 2018, it has supported business development in the region through a programme aimed at retaining graduates, generating new start-up businesses, and increasing business capacity through four key strands: part-funded internships in regional SMEs, a student- and graduate-focussed enterprise support programme, the Durham City Incubator which supports community entrepreneurs, and Orbit – the University Enterprise Zone.
It has delivered impressive results for County Durham, including an increase in the growth capacity of SME beneficiaries (67 per cent of SMEs have been supported to develop a new product or service, a 19 per cent increase in employment, and a 21 per cent increase in turnover evidenced).
There has also been an increase in the number of start-ups registered in County Durham and attracting external investment (a 133 per cent increase from 2018-19 to 2019-20), and an increase in the number of graduates choosing to stay in the region to either start their business or develop their career. There’s a win here for everyone.
Regionalising the curriculum
Your BA (Hons) Marketing may well chart the rise of Airbnb and other global brands but what about the success stories of those celebrated in your region’s annual business awards? It’s time to link up your KEF and TEF, and collaborate with regional employers to put industry back on the curriculum.
This is the ambition of the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) which sits within the Yorkshire, Humberside, and East Midlands economic (YH+EM) region and is a partnership between technical industries and the university physics departments of York, Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, and Hull.
Employers want graduates with translational skills and students want work-integrated learning and to make better informed career choices.
The YH+EM economic region is dominated by SMEs although students are often only aware of London and South East-based graduate jobs.
WRIPA connects a regional talent pool of physicists to employers, by enhancing the industry-focus of the taught physics curriculum.
Students get to problem-solve by applying their learning to tech challenges or within a commercial environment; promoting a stronger sense of “identity” to physics-related employment while enhancing student connections to the regional economy.
Longer term, WRIPA aims to place a greater emphasis on skills gaps by ensuring curriculum developments enhance graduate outcomes and respond to and reflect local labour market demand.
Making it easy for employers
Council and curriculum projects can take time, and so sometimes a more forceful hand on the tiller is needed in order to drive faster regional employment increases.
Created in 2021, the LCR Grad Scheme exists to do just that, connecting graduates in the Liverpool City Region with local SMEs. In partnership with attraction specialists RMP, the LCR Grad Scheme team runs full attraction and selection campaigns for local SMEs, and places the right candidates with businesses for a final stage interview.
And it doesn’t end with a job offer. Once a graduate role is secured, there is an extensive graduate development and training programme offered with two delivery partners (Gradconsult and Agent Academy). This provides recent graduates with additional qualifications, and helps to create a network of peers to help with the transition into work.
The programme also helps graduates think about big issues, such as sustainability and diversity, as part of their new LCR-based roles.
While the scheme is run by the University of Liverpool, it is open to any graduate from the Liverpool City Region to increase the retention of graduates originally from the region. SMEs are given the recruitment and graduate development expertise of the university, and in turn the outcomes of LCR institutions improve.
Institutions can be guilty of shying away from regional collaborations out of a misplaced sense of competition. But local SMEs and employers don’t care about your B3, they just want to access talented graduates.
Working with local councils and authorities is one way into a collaborative approach that can improve graduate employment, support local enterprise, and truly level up.