Certain assumptions lie at the heart of higher education policy. Let’s look at how students are expected to navigate their way in and out of universities. They are expected to consult literature, metrics, league tables and so forth to make their choice of institution from the wide range of universities in the UK.
Once they get there, they’ll live near to the institution, most likely first in halls of residence and then probably later in private rented accommodation. On leaving it is assumed that they’ll look around the country for the job that suits them – which is why we have salary metrics, which advantage institutions that send graduates to London.
This vision of the way students and graduates make their choices has, at its heart, one very large assumption – that our student body is largely a highly mobile cohort that moves away for study and then moves again on graduation to wherever it is that the jobs are, commonly London.
The rhetoric often goes further with discussions of “the global graduate” and the skills required to thrive in the “global marketplace”. This assumption is (largely unconsciously) based on a particular idea of how rational careers decisions are made based on maximising perceived value, and the only real problem with it is that it is wrong.
Rhetoric and reality
Only 18 per cent of graduates from 2017 had made this journey; leaving home to a new institution away from their original domicile, and then leaving again to somewhere new to work. Over 40 per cent of them went to work in London and most of the rest went to one of the larger UK cities; Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow. This is far from the typical graduate experience.
More than half (58 per cent) of graduates went to work in the region they studied in and 69 per cent went to work in the region they were originally domiciled – that’s because 45 per cent of graduates stayed in the same region throughout.
Not for them the league table agenda, it doesn’t apply. They go to their local institution and they stay close by to work.
This is much the most common experience for students, and the long term trends suggest that this will be how the majority of UK students experience higher education. For most students and graduates, rational careers decisions include a strong element of place, which is absent from the usual models of how students and graduates are “supposed” to behave.
This has profound implications for the whole of higher education – from the metrics agenda, through questions of social mobility, to the financial models underpinning halls of residence. But it particularly impacts student support and careers and employability provision.
The dominant literature on careers development is blind to questions of place and tends to assume a level of career mobility that is, in practise, absent for much of the graduate population.
Local labour markets
One particularly important effect of this practical absence of geographic mobility for most graduates is that the idea of a “UK graduate labour market” should be shelved. This entity does not, in any practical sense, exist.
The UK consists of a series of local and regional labour markets (in many cases driven by the extent of transport links) that have their own character, and in many cases do not overlap in any meaningful way.
The Welsh or southern English graduate labour market is largely irrelevant to most graduates in Scotland. They are never going to go there. A graduate from Plymouth is very unlikely to seek work in Leeds unless they are one of the very small number of graduates who went to university there. And although London is much the largest labour market in the UK, most graduates will never work there and the majority who go to work in London are originally from the city, and most of the rest come from the neighbouring regions of the East and South East. Even our national melting pot is largely for local graduates.
To best serve our students and graduates – and to better engage locally- we need a renewed focus on local labour markets; the jobs markets that are most relevant to an institution’s graduates.
Many institutions that are effective in employability already have this kind of focus built in – I have seen many excellent examples of how local engagement can have a great impact, from the University of Northampton’s laser-like focus on its regional jobs markets to Sheffield’s impressive RISE project – but there is still a great deal more we can do.
One thing HECSU Prospects is working on is much more effective, local labour market information with the launch of a What do graduates do? regional publication. Arguably even this could be more granular – I certainly accept that there is a question about how relevant Liverpool’s labour market is to a student from Carlisle, for example. But this is the first step in a longer journey to better understanding local challenges and to helping universities adapt to the changes in student cohorts and their particular needs.