Paul Gratrick offers an optimistic view on the current Office for Students (OfS) proposals and their potential to enhance the links between WP and employability. While there is much that we agree on – not least around the centrality of careers teams – I see the proposals as altogether more problematic for the context in which we operate.
For an institution such as Kingston – where I have led the careers and employability service for the past four years – access, participation, and success are already closely intertwined.
Closing the gap
We had a strong input into the drafting of our first five-year Access & Participation Plan, and we have collaborated to develop a Centre for Graduate Success with the express aim of closing gaps in outcomes for the most disadvantaged groups of students.
This work is predicated on a whole student lifecycle approach, even embedding careers expertise within the university’s Outreach team. Like many institutions, our commitment in this space long predates the latest B3 and TEF proposals.
Yet from this experience, we are only too aware how challenging it is to eliminate these gaps in practice, and the extent to which our students’ outcomes are still determined by factors outside of our direct control. We know that our students are so much more than a WP marker; as trite as it might sound, they have complex lives, complex identities, and complex aspirations.
All of this knowledge has to go into the design of any interventions and to provide sufficient flexibility to enable them to hold down the part-time jobs that they may need to fall back on at the end of the internship.
When we launched our graduate internship programme to support the class of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, we had to take account of digital poverty among our graduates – offering access to both hardware and internet.
This inclusivity by design is what we do but it is both resource intensive and difficult to scale.
And what do we even mean by equity in this context – is the OfS still motivated by equality of outcomes and how does the issue of equity manifest for students in a primarily WP institution compared to a highly selective one?
We know, for example, that students of Black heritage are massively overrepresented in certain institutions. When we established the Inclusive Futures partnership with the universities of West London, Westminster, London Met, Greenwich, and Hertfordshire, we noted that there were more Black students across our six institutions than in the entire top 25 institutions most targeted by employers (High Fliers 2020).
All the supply-side interventions in the world won’t cancel out this in-built inequity; and while employer practices are changing for the better, this is incremental progress that isn’t beholden to arbitrary thresholds.
Stepping back from the detail, there is a fundamental question as to what the role of the higher education regulator should be when it comes to graduate outcomes. The implicit opportunity costs of higher education are such that all students should be entitled to high-quality careers education and employability support, and to be able to access this as an integral part of their curriculum as well as post-graduation. That’s certainly what we strive to offer. But that’s not what OfS are seeking to measure here.
The TEF in its first iteration allowed us to interrogate differential outcomes and to seek evidence as to what the provider was doing to address them; I am unconvinced that the proposals around B3 will provide space for such nuance.
Many will see in the proposals an attempt to further stratify the sector and, in an ever more financially challenging environment, institutions will need to manage the risk of finding themselves on the wrong side of the thresholds.
One of the great joys of my job, and that of my team, is to see students who have already overcome so many barriers just to enter higher education engaging in a subject they love with the assurance that it will enrich them and help them to define what success will look like in their lives. Let’s not take those opportunities away.