Reflecting on what students, their representatives, and the professional staff who support students’ unions have to say about how universities can improve careers support for students, our conclusion is that the answer isn’t automatically “earlier and more intensive student engagement with specialist careers services.”
We suspect this doesn’t come as a shock – and maybe it even comes as a relief – to careers professionals, who (much like many students’ unions) are doing their best to serve the needs of ever-more diverse students at ever-larger scale. No single service could possibly meet those needs comprehensively.
But the alternative is a harder road – mobilising the resources of the whole university, making judicious use of technology in the process – to articulate students’ needs at different stages of their journey from student to graduate, in ways that align with their prior experience and aspirations, and working effectively together to address those needs.
In December, Wonkhe worked with Handshake UK to facilitate a series of five round tables in five cities across the UK exploring the views of students and students’ unions on how careers support would need to change in the decade ahead, as part of the Careers 2032 research project. At the same time, Handshake undertook quantitative research with students – altogether the research reached 817 students, student reps, and SU professionals.
AGCAS and the Institute of Student Employers likewise worked with Handshake to facilitate parallel sessions for careers professionals and employers. The final report bringing all these perspectives together and asking some big cross-cutting questions is now published – the next phase is to work with the different stakeholders to think through the findings and build a roadmap to change in practice. Here we bring together our own sense of what we heard from students – and some reflections on what it might mean for the future of careers support in universities.
Different strokes for different folks
The traditional view of careers support has been about making the most of the skills and experiences you have, packaging these up in a way that is likely to be attractive to prospective employers in different industries. Careers services excel at this kind of work – and their expertise is recognised and appreciated by students and SUs.
Careers professionals continue to further develop the range of support available, including coaching, mentoring, skills development, work experience/internships, and curriculum development – now, post-pandemic, both in person and remote. But it’s an open question whether the diversification of professional support will be sufficient to meet the increasing diversity and intensity of different students’ career support needs.
The student representatives and SU staff who attended our round tables were concerned that the job market is changing, with greater use of online recruitment, and often, greater ambiguity to navigate regarding negotiating pay and contracts. Many students – especially those studying the arts and other specialist subjects – expect to work freelance and be self-employed, and need the knowhow to thrive in a precarious employment environment. Some are already in work, and want to know how to parlay their new skills into a more fulfilling role in their current industry.
Some plan to work overseas and, for international students, some need to understand the cultural specificities of the UK labour market and the alignment between visa arrangements and job opportunities. Some are concerned that their university is not preparing them with the industry-specific skills they will need in the contemporary job market. They know that practical experience of the workplace – or something closely related – may be of more immediate value than their degree certificate, but do not always know how to secure these opportunities, or are trapped in low-wage jobs that help make ends meet right now but limit the time available to explore alternatives.
These concerns speak to a need to build support and services around students’ lived experiences and aspirations – taking account of the diversity inherent in the student body, and the range of options available in the labour market, and personalising as much as possible.
The Handshake student survey found that when asked what encourage students to engage more with career support opportunities at their university, 37 per cent said “easier opportunities to get in touch”, 34 per cent said “opportunities I can engage in at my one pace and in my own time,” 31 per cent said, “more personalised advice and opportunities,” and 31 per cent said, “more opportunities to connect with the careers team.” For that last one, it’s notable there was ethnic difference in responses, with 36 per cent of Asian students and 39 per cent of black students wanting more opportunities to connect with careers teams, compared to 29 per cent of white students.
But student diversity is not only captured in subject and aspiration. Those who have a particular experience of marginalisation – those who are black, disabled, or wear the hijab for example – worry that the job market is already stacked against them – and all the evidence suggests that they are right to worry. In careers support terms, this calls for a sensitive and active addressing of the challenges students may face as a result of their personal identity and background in the job market.
Some of this may be about helping students understand how their specific experiences and background can be mobilised as a strength in different roles, industries, and organisations. Some of it may be about supporting students to identify the organisations where their particular skills and contributions will be welcomed. Some of it might be about taking a hard look at which students are engaging with existing services, digging into the data on which students are facing barriers to engagement, and updating the opportunities on offer to meet any specific needs.
And some of it – especially for those universities that have the reputational clout to do so – might be about supporting and challenging employers directly to refine their outreach, recruitment and onboarding processes to help them access the best talent, and students with the best potential, not just those with the social and financial capital to accumulate a wide breadth of CV-friendly accomplishments. Reports from the Careers 2032 employer round tables suggest that many would be open to greater dialogue on how best to assess candidates’ potential as well as their prior skills and achievements.
Confidence is a preference
For many students, before they even get to the point in their professional development journey where they are preparing for a specific career or job application, they are just trying to work out who they are and what their contribution to the world might be.
Studying at university – whatever your life stage – has traditionally been a time where through exposure to new knowledge, new people, new ways of thinking, and new experiences you gain new insight about your identity, your values, and your potential. This is the most positive version of the student journey, but for a lot of students, this development trajectory can be discombobulating, and it can include a loss of confidence, and a fair amount of anxiety about the future and where you belong.
The Handshake survey found that student confidence in their career prospects is relatively low – and actually appears to decline throughout the course, with 33 per cent of students feeling very confident about their prospects in the first year of their course, compared with only 17 per cent of those in their final year – though it’s hard to say to what extent the pandemic has played a role here.
Attendees at our round tables said it wasn’t always clear where responsibility lies in universities for supporting students’ broad development in this way. University colleagues might justifiably observe that it’s everyone’s responsibility, including students’. But if there isn’t an obvious sense of join-up between their learning and teaching activity, academic and pastoral support, the co- and extra-curricular offer, specialist careers and employability advice, and the various attributes the university claims to develop in its graduates, then from the student perspective it looks like nobody’s in charge.
In discussing this theme one student representative attendee made a comparison to the NHS – in which you are expected to keep yourself healthy, which is hard in itself, and when you have a problem that needs addressing none of the different bits seem to talk to each other.
For this reason, exhorting students to engage with careers services earlier in their journey, even if you could make them do it, isn’t likely to actually address their employability needs at this earlier stage. Students at our round tables agreed that what they would like to see is a more integrated support pathway from “working out how to be a student” to “working out how to be a graduate”, baked into their whole curriculum – a much tougher ask.
In thinking about how to make that ask a reality, students suggested that their departments and student academic societies could foster closer links with alumni, and relevant employers, and offer more professional mentoring opportunities. Many wanted to see more of direct relevance to employment in their academic subject curriculum – though they did not believe that “employability skills” should be integrated into assessment without appropriate pedagogic support to develop these.
Students also wanted additional support from universities to secure term-time employment, and some pointed to the growth of jobs and volunteering opportunities on campus – while noting that if a student needs paid employment then offering more opportunities to volunteer is unlikely to address their development needs.
Collaboration’s what you need
The Careers 2032 research report argues that in the next decade, technology will help to make services more accessible, and foster quicker and easier connections between students, careers support services, alumni, and employer representatives. Certainly when looking ahead to a likely ongoing increase in the scale and complexity of students’ support needs, it is clear that novel use of technology will be an enabler for many aspects of student experience, including careers support.
But effective use of technology needs itself to be underpinned by collaborative partnerships within and outside universities that build powerful educational experiences that help students grow their confidence about who they are and what they might contribute to the world in their professional life.
Students’ unions are mindful that employability is important to students, and increasingly questioning what kind of role they might play. Many already do good work in supporting skills accreditation for student volunteers, in employing students, and in advocating for students on employability matters.
We’d suggest, however, that relationships between students’ unions and careers services should be more strategic, and focused on making more of students’ unions’ potential to channel a deep understanding of the diversity of students’ experience of careers support.
We found many examples of where students’ unions are empowered to offer comment on service quality, but far fewer where student representatives and students’ unions are engaged in strategic thinking about broad student development and careers support provision. We wonder whether, on occasion, careers services feel a similar desire to raise the level of the conversation from the operational to the strategic, and whether students’ unions and careers services might be allies in that agenda.
There will be many policy and regulatory based reasons for universities to look ever more carefully at students’ employment destinations and especially the differences in outcomes among diverse student groups in the decade ahead. But helping students work out what they are going to do in the world and who they might become has always been a core purpose of higher education – and in that sense, it’s definitely everybody’s responsibility.
This article is published in association with Handshake. Click here to get your copy of the Careers 2032 report which brings together insight from students, careers services, and employers.