OfS outcomes proposals could improve links between WP and employability

Paul Gratrick hopes that new requirements on graduate outcomes could prompt greater investment in equity for less advantaged students

Paul Gratrick is a Head of Operations at the University of Liverpool

Like many of you I’m sure, I was planning on a dry January and not reading any policy consultations, but when three landed at once last week I just couldn’t help myself.

There’s plenty to digest in the three OfS consultations, and it’s important for us all to remember that these are consultations. You might love some aspects of them and hate others, but do respond either way.

As I read the various proposals I found myself musing on scenarios and solutions that could happen as a result. This is through the lenses of my part-time PhD on the subject of value for money in UK HE, where I’m researching this issue in the round, but also from the point of view of my day job in student experience and enhancement, and from across access to progression.

Here come the outcomes

There are plenty of thresholds in B3 consultation, covering a lot of course types. The full time undergraduate one has grabbed the headlines, and its 60 per cent threshold for progression. That’s 60 per cent in a SOC 1-3 job and/or further study of ANY kind – which if anything, seems low.

Looking at last summer’s Proceed data and Graduate Outcomes Survey 17-18, only nine of 144 providers (six per cent) are below the 60 per cent threshold at an institutional level, and everyone will likely get a Covid pass on those future years of data.

While the sole purpose of education isn’t to conveyor belt students into graduate jobs, under these proposals there are 40 percentage points of wiggle room to account for the sometimes required non-grad routes out of a course, or for unavoidable unemployment rates of some kind. It’s not as if the majority of institutions fail to meet this threshold.

It’s hard to game the Graduate Outcomes Survey in the same way that you *could* have done with DLHE, but we might yet see institutions suddenly offering low-cost and low-level “further study” courses to all their under/unemployed graduates at around 14 months after leaving. It could be a tick for further study on the outcomes survey if they do.

At subject/characteristic split level there will of course be areas under that 60 per cent, and some by a decent score, but then I think that is the point here. We know (and have known for a while) the areas that don’t perform as well, but now is the time for real action and investment to help students overcome the societal and economic barriers that may be in their way.

I am absolutely not trying to be dismissive of the disadvantages experienced by many students, and many are truly inspirational. Where I think B3 and its splits lands us is at the inevitable point of requiring greater investment in creating equity for students.

Level up your funding

For many institutions there is a level of investment already present, in that they run their own employment schemes. These may be aimed at placements and internships, or graduate level roles for post-graduation. There have been models and baselines of activity here for a while.

Institutions may have to be even more targeted in their eligibility criteria for these schemes, effectively ring fencing them for their groups of students most far below the 60 per cent progression threshold.

Is this in effect a levelling down and restrictions on more affluent students in order to improve the outcomes of the most disadvantaged ones? Possibly, but if your schemes are open to all and one group is currently progressing at 50 per cent compared to the other at 90 per cent, then level them up/down to a nice even 70 per cent and I don’t think OfS will care. Institutions may just have to be that interventionist and deliberate with it all in future.

In any case, the privileges that more connected and affluent grads have will activate in the long run, and way beyond the 15 month Graduate Outcomes Survey date. We’ve no need to mourn them and our attention should be at the other end of the privilege spectrum as I think these consultations do point out.

From an access point of view are we going to see institutions taking fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and shutting down courses with lower than threshold outcomes because they are less likely to do well in outcomes measures? I’m not holding my breath on the immediacy of that.

With room for institutional submissions to justify below threshold outcomes, where the statistics aren’t significant, I think we’ll be into the late 2020s before course closure is a strategic route to managing outcomes. Additionally, when global markets and recruitment are unreliable, that Home intake and fee money is always nice to have.

Strategic admissions and finance colleagues could be in for some interesting conversations in the future as they try to balance access and the accounts. Access will go the way it should, and with an increased focus on supporting students from lower participation backgrounds into higher education.

Scope creep for careers teams

There are interventions you can make to drive up outcomes, it just needs investment and a broader remit for your careers teams.

If you’re a senior leader in HE then get under the bonnet of your careers teams. Find out what they do for the split groups. Whilst many are fantastic, some are behind and haven’t innovated even during Covid, let alone for what’s needed in the current regulatory era.

I’m not saying bin them all off, but actually with investment they can really thrive here. It may surprise you that I work in a careers team and I’m advocating for their greater institutional responsibility, but hear me out…

At the access end of the spectrum, careers teams can provide expertise to better advise and prepare your intake before they even register. They can help get them on the right courses that they stay on and then progress from.

I also think we’ll start to see the creation/expansion of those traditional institution-run graduate schemes into guaranteed and paid apprenticeship style offers for disadvantaged groups, essentially stitching together access and progression programmes to create full degree cycle initiative. Before students even start they’ll be guaranteed first year Easter work, second year summer internships, and grad roles afterwards – all developed and brokered via your employer relations experts in careers teams and providing the routes into employment some groups don’t have the capital or time to find.

I’m aware that this needs a good chunk of money to do it, but that’s where it may go with these consultations. The gaps are known, so invest to overcome the structural inequalities and force the issue. Many careers teams are also expert collaborators around authentic assessments, providing new ways for students to succeed on their courses away from traditional methods. Give your careers teams a proper seat at the table, across the whole student experience, and they can collaborate to enhance your access, success and progression measures.

OfS chair Lord Wharton said last week “when [students] graduate their experience should have prepared them for successful careers and enriched them as individuals.” While readiness for a career is absolutely not the sole purpose of higher education, I don’t think it’s a stretch that students should be prepared about what awaits them and routes they can take.

This needs to start pre-enrolment and especially with the groups we know need that support most. Out of these consultations I hope we’ll see stronger access plans with a greater and more significant investment in order to – borrowing an old phrase – help students “get in and get on.”

That will take strong institution wide collaborations and careful redirection of funds, but give your careers team a seat at that table and see how much their labour market knowledge, employer connections, and skill articulating activities help develop the support for those that need it most.

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