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What is the future for student careers services?

The world of work is changing, and graduates are changing too. New research from Handshake, Wonkhe, AGCAS, and ISE examines the role careers services will play in ten years' time. Handshake's Charles Hardy introduces the findings

Charles Hardy is University Partnerships Lead at Handshake

Earlier this year, Handshake – working with Wonkhe, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), and the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) published the first instalment of Careers 2032 report.

It was a wide-ranging research project drawing on the views of students and students’ unions, careers professionals, and employers, on how the next decade of careers support in universities might look.

And it left us with some powerful questions – about student confidence as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic; about coordination and collaboration within and outside universities on careers and employability work; and about the roles technology and personalisation can play.

Today’s final instalment explores the best way to address these, and other challenges over the next decade. We brought employers, careers professionals, and students back together – a diverse set of perspectives, from providers and employers of every size and shape – to reflect on our initial findings and feed back their recommendations for change.

Here’s what they told us.

The confidence thing

The way we worked during the first two years of the pandemic has accelerated the evolution of careers practice. But it also seems to have knocked students’ confidence and depleted their sense of agency and drive.

We heard that in 2022 students are less likely to engage with careers support, and build connections with employers, even at a time when employers are keen and motivated to bring in graduates to their organisations. The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission also identified this collective “loss of confidence” – calling on universities to build support for student networks, skills, and communities into curricula, with a clear orientation towards graduate outcomes.

There’s work to be done with students and student representative bodies to understand the factors contributing to low engagement – especially where these are associated with pre-existing inequities. And we also need to develop strategies to rebuild students’ sense of belonging, confidence, and purpose, in support of a positive and fulfilling experience post-graduation.

Careers professionals need to motivate diverse students to engage with career development, and build the infrastructure that will enable them to scale that engagement and demonstrate its impact on graduate outcomes. Like everything else going on in universities at the moment this will happen against a backdrop of tight financial pressures – the money is not likely to be there for significant investment.

Employers have always been focused on sourcing the right talent and skills, but there’s an open question about what engagement with universities will look like in the decade ahead, and how higher education will respond to changes in industry-specific skills needs, the changing nature of professions, and changing working patterns and practices.

Tertiary moments

Every nation in the UK seems to be moving towards a tertiary post-compulsory education landscape, which would look across the existing HE, FE, and adult skills silos to offer a wider variety of qualifications and pathways informed by regional skills needs and innovation agendas.

Though the traditional three year degree is safe (and, given demographics, likely to expand as the core route to graduate-level employment) new options will place new demands on careers support professionals. And in England in particular, the regulatory focus on student outcomes will increasingly point the finger at gaps in rates of progression for particular student groups or subject areas.

From our research we think universities will increasingly look at pedagogy, curriculum, and career development in the round. There’s the opportunity for an approach focused on growing students’ agency and ownership over their own career journeys – with work-relevant experiences and network building as a part of the core curriculum rather than as an optional add-on. There’s scope to support this with the use of student analytics, and with wider civic engagement.

What’s in the curriculum?

By far the greatest number of comments we received focused on the challenge of aligning curriculum development and career preparation. “Embedding” careers and employability in higher education curricula can mean lots of different things in different institutional contexts – we heard about reflective practice, new forms of credit bearing activity, integration of careers advice, greater use of authentic assessment, and employer involvement in curricula.

There’s a clear interest in the extension of (and recognition for) practical work, enterprise, and volunteering experiences within the curriculum. How this happens will depend on

the subject and institutional context. But there is a shared rationale for why it should be necessary – it ensures that there is a degree of equity of opportunity for the students least likely to have time, resource, and capital to engage in extra-curricular opportunities that employers look for. As one participant told us:

Careers and employer led interventions shouldn’t be bolted on. Interventions need to be focused at a subject or school level. Placements, internships and business case studies need to be embedded.

Of course, building curricula which integrate these kinds of activities will need to bring academic and professional staff (together with strategic leadership) to focus on establishing commonly shared objectives for student outcomes. AGCAS has already developed work on aligning pedagogy, curriculum, and student development activity.

The implication here is that some of the curriculum would be taught and assessed by people other than academics. Given that a lot of this work is already happening, the first challenge for the decade ahead is about systematic quality assurance – ensuring that all curriculum content is appropriately rigorous, relevant, and meaningful and that there is clarity about what the standards are and how students can demonstrate they have been achieved.

And there’s a role for employers here too. On the more intensive end, some employers will continue to get involved in curriculum shaping and delivery through work placements and projects. But all employers need to sustain a dialogue with universities about what kinds of development activities and assessments are meaningful in professions, and how students can best evidence them.

Speaking of motivation

It’s one thing to build the infrastructure for careers development and support, and quite another to motivate students to take up the opportunities available to them.

We heard a wide range of comments focused on student engagement, from the belief that students do not engage with careers support early enough in their student journey, to a concern that much of the careers support offer ends up being devoted to the “worried well” who are most likely to take up voluntary career development opportunities and advice but who probably need it the least.

Factors such as disability, lived experience of inequality, or poor mental health could be impacting students’ internal beliefs about the degree of agency they have – and as a consequence, their ability and confidence to engage with careers provision.

Suggestions for addressing this largely forced on a more relatable and personable presentation of careers support, but the underlying issue – of fostering student agency over their own career paths means that students need to be prepared not simply to secure a good job but to develop the skills associated with career management throughout their lives.

Some of those transitions may bring serious challenges, such as returning to work following a career break, changing industries, or shifting from casual to professional employment – and require a high degree of personal agency to achieve. So we heard comments about developing students’ reflective practice, and on building students’ networks and connections – including through mobilising alumni networks.

The place of technology

None of these debates are especially novel for careers professionals, but there remains the question of what the broader learning and teaching landscape may look like in the decade ahead.

However the legacy of the emergency online provision of the previous years plays out, we imagine that blended learning will become even more common in the years to come. We expect that the next decade will see the further development of an evidence base around the kinds of digitally-enabled activities that develop students’ confidence and agency – not just by engaging with the careers offer from institutions, but to use those provisions as a grounding or basis to take control of their own career trajectory.

The limitations of metrics in making sense of graduate outcomes, including acknowledging that different students typically begin their career journeys from very different starting points, are clear. Careers professionals remain committed to securing a good outcome for the needs of the individual student, and as such are understandably anxious about the impact of the turn towards “metricisation” of students’ outcomes.

Good data – used appropriately alongside qualitative information – becomes a vital tool for understanding the interaction between activity and outcome. This is already widespread in the field of learning engagement analytics – universities are developing their understanding of how information on patterns of student engagement in learning can give indications about students’ projected outcomes that can steer individual conversations and even shape curricula.

Some careers services have access to very rich data on students’ career readiness and work experience through large-scale annual surveys captured on registration, as well as institutional Graduate Outcomes data. But the use of data on student activity to empower students themselves, direct and shape individual interventions and track and evaluate careers support practice remains an opportunity for development building on existing practice.

For careers services – and for the whole university – it is essential that professional services teams are afforded a meaningful voice in the institutional discussion about the shape of the future learning landscape and the technologies that will underpin it.

The challenge ahead

Could this be the decade in which the UK finally manages to crack its skills challenge?

At a national policy level we are seeing the development of new funding structures, and a new emphasis on local and regional skills needs. Post-compulsory education and place are becoming more closely aligned as policy priorities than ever.

Whether the policies and initiatives instruments currently under development will address the deep-seated challenges that governments are grappling with is not yet clear, but their success depends on what education providers do in response.

Universities recognise the vital role they have to play in their places – and even traditionally nationally and internationally-oriented institutions are foregrounding their civic missions. When it comes to lifelong learning opportunities, place is central – though some will continue to take advantage of an online or distance learning offer to improve their skills, the close alignment of regional employers and their universities is likely to continue to be the main source of growth and diversification.

If general student personal and professional development becomes more deeply embedded in the “core” curriculum then we could see a parallel shift in which centralised careers services align more closely with civic engagement, knowledge exchange, and innovation work. Universities, perhaps working with other education providers, could see themselves becoming regional “hubs” for skills development and career development insight, supporting employers and (prospective) students alike.

Handshake would like to thank the teams at AGCAS and ISE for their support with this final stage of the Careers 2032 project, and all the students, SUs, careers professionals, and employers who took part in the Careers2032 Live events and shared their insight with us. The full report is available.

11 responses to “What is the future for student careers services?

  1. I am very sorry to see not a single mention of self employment or starting a business. It just seems to be following the traditional Careers Service approach, i. e. just employment!!

    1. Thanks Nigel, very good point on self-employment and starting a business. I know several universities have / are developing more resources and support for graduates taking that direction. It would be great to hear from some universities on this here. Sure there is a lot more that can be developed in this area – and something we can look into as part of the next phase of research and support. Thank you.

      1. You might want to contact Enterprise Educators UK? Lots of really good work in HE across the UK. The Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship too who have an Enterprise Education research conference track. You’ll find a lot of enthusiastic enterprise and entrepreneurship educators in this space.

    2. Yes, interesting ommission, not least because attempts have been made for over twenty years now at expanding the meaning of a graduate career – but note Charles’ response below and agree with the general gist of the article.

  2. Everything I hear at the moment is about spinning out or outsourcing with hard metrics and KPIs around graduate outcomes.

    1. Thanks Alan, it can certainly feel like that! It’s definitely important to understand outcomes and what’s working / what’s not working – data and insights help improvement and evolution. But these metrics are the means not the end.

  3. In UK Quality terms (QAA) we make distinction between being enterprising and starting a business. From 3 X APPG reports for example, we know that this is extremely import in terms of preparedness for working in small and micro enterprises. The metrics are different too, as AGCAS colleagues who are using the EntreComp Framework will know. Creativity, Visioning Skills, working in ambiguous uncertain environments etc. etc., can be developed and progress mapped. The term competency was key when developing this framework, and your report appears to complement this way of thing about educational outcomes.

    I am on it on Wednesday In Bristol Uni with like minded colleagues – who are pushing the boundaries – in their Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

    As all Subject Benchmark Statement now have to comment on EntEd and Sustainability for example, I can imagine a great follow up to this article that plugs some gaps 😉

    1. Thanks Andy, that’s great. Understanding those important skills / competencies that are needed in setting up a business / entrepreneurship, coaching and support in development, tapping into successful alumni, lots of good here and we’ll look at the follow-up on this topic.

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