What happens next? Enhancing the employability of disabled graduates

The latest in a series of reports on the employment prospects of disabled graduates finds that the proportion of graduates is rising but employment outcomes continue to disappoint. Gabi Binnie breaks it down for us.

Gabi is Policy and Research Manager at AGCAS.

For the last 17 years the AGCAS Disability Task Group has produced What Happens Next?, a deep-dive into the outcomes of disabled graduates from UK universities. This year’s edition is notable for being the first to use data from the Graduate Outcomes survey to better understand disabled graduates’ experiences after leaving their institution.

From access to outcomes

Whilst caution is needed when comparing Graduate Outcomes data with DLHE data, the proportion of 2017-18 graduates disclosing a disability was higher than the findings of previous What Happens Next? reports, continuing the trend of a year-on-year increase in disclosure at both first degree and postgraduate (taught and research) qualification levels. We could argue that increasing numbers of disabled graduates entering university is reflective of the sector’s success in improving access and participation; but there is another possibility. Whilst the proportion of graduates reporting some disabilities has remained relatively stable, such as those disclosing as deaf/with hearing loss, blind/visually impaired or having physical/mobility issues, the disclosure rate of mental health conditions has increased year-on-year.

From a careers and employability perspective, this raises concerns about how well-equipped employers are to support a greater number of graduates with mental health conditions. While there are excellent examples across the sector of partnerships between employers, careers services and support organisations, such as Student Minds, such good practice needs to be delivered at scale in order to reach the breadth and variety of organisations that employ graduates.

The effect on employment

Another similarity with previous What Happens Next? reports is the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled graduates in employment at all qualification levels, with disabled graduates consistently being less likely to be in employment than graduates with no known disability.

There was some optimism that the move from a six-month survey point to 15-month survey point would lead to an increase in positive outcomes for disabled graduates, which would suggest that it simply took disabled graduates slightly longer than graduates without a disability to establish themselves in the labour market. The fact that there is still a significant gap in employment rates more than a year after graduation suggests that there is a serious, long-term barrier facing disabled graduates, at all qualification levels, as they transition into the world of work.

Disparity between disabilities

One consistent finding in What Happens Next? reports over a number of years has been the particular disadvantage experienced by graduates with autism – a pattern that continues for the 2017-18 cohort. At all qualification levels, autistic graduates were the least likely of all disabled graduates to be in employment. Where autistic individuals are employed, this is less likely to be on a permanent basis and more likely to be in a temporary or voluntary capacity. This lack of permanency in employment could have contributed to the findings that graduates with autism were least likely to have supervisory responsibility in their job role. Autistic graduates in employment were also the least likely of any disabled graduates to indicate that their qualification level and subject had been required for their job role, which suggests that the employment found may not be a graduate-level role and may not fit in with career plans.

Location, location, location

For the first time, this edition of What Happens Next? explores the location of employed disabled graduates. Unsurprisingly, the greatest proportion work in London. More surprisingly, the proportion of disabled graduates who work in London, and outside the UK, is smaller than the proportion of non-disabled graduates employed in the capital and overseas. Inaccessible transport and limited housing options can have a huge impact on the geographical mobility of some disabled graduates, and perhaps the data is articulating the difficulties that disabled graduates face in living and working in these regions. Alternatively, there may be other reasons why fewer disabled graduates stay in, or move to, London after graduation, such as connection to friends and family, their sense of belonging and proximity to support networks and services.

More research into disabled graduates’ choice of employment location is needed before conclusions – and policies – can be derived, and there could be unintended consequences for institutions if policy precedes evidence. We know that graduates in London and the South East of England are paid more on average than those in other regions and nations of the UK and that graduate salary is a contributing factor to how universities in the UK are perceived and measured. The emphasis placed on the salary and employment status of graduates alone could have a detrimental effect on universities that recruit greater proportions of disabled students – surely something that contradicts many years of widening participation work.

More than just money

The definition of graduate success in economic terms alone discounts many other factors that constitute career success, such as job satisfaction, wellbeing, work-life balance, and the conscious decision of some graduates to live and work in particular locations, or to undertake part time work out of choice, rather than necessity. At all qualification levels, a greater proportion of disabled graduates work part-time than graduates with no disability. We need to dig deeper – both through the graduate voice questions in the Graduate Outcomes survey and through new research – to better understand how disabled graduates make career decisions and what may be preventing them from achieving their career ambitions.

Sustained and genuine change for disabled people must draw on the experiences of disabled people themselves. To quote Lord Shinkwin, long-standing campaigner for disability equality:

It is imperative to ensure that the next generation of talented, young, disabled graduates are present in the boardrooms, newsrooms, and political offices that will allow them to lead from the front and be instigators of the change they want to see.

With expertise in career development and in supporting students to manage the transition to graduate employment, careers and employability professionals are a crucial part of the mechanism through which to deliver real change for disabled people in the UK. AGCAS members are committed to supporting disabled graduates to reach their post-graduation aspirations.

What does happen next?

The substantial differences in outcomes between disabled and non-disabled graduates is clear. Sadly, this is before we even consider the disabled graduates who are also BAME, female or from lower socio-economic groups – all groups that have less positive economic outcomes than their white, male or more privileged peers.

The Policy Connect paper “Arriving at Thriving” highlights the lack of funding for university careers services. In recent AGCAS research, only a quarter of careers services have specialist widening participation staff, which includes those who support disabled students. In the 25 per cent of services that do have staff members supporting the widening participation (including disabled student) cohort, it equates to an average of 1.7 full time equivalent staff per institution. This presents real challenges when supporting a heterogeneous disabled cohort.

Encouragingly, one of the key objectives of the newly established Disabled Students’ Commission is to enhance the employability of disabled students. We think success in achieving this outcome needs to start with research to understand what works in enhancing the employability of disabled graduates at a more granular and intersectional level. The outcomes of graduates with different disabilities differ widely and we predict that the most effective support for disabled graduates will therefore not be ubiquitous. As key players within the broader employability ecosystem, appropriate resourcing of university careers services, disability support teams and other relevant professional services would be a good place to start in order to put effective interventions in place at-scale.

After 17 years of producing What happens next?, we think it is time to reverse the trend of poorer outcomes for disabled graduates and believe that the recommendations in this report are where we, as a sector, should start in order to turn the tide.

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