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Why graduates should work in higher education professional services

Graduates are looking for interesting jobs and universities are looking to recruit a diverse workforce. Emily Owen asks whether professional services at universities should be looking to recruit recent graduates
This article is more than 1 year old

Emily Owen is a Consultant at Halpin

The coveted “grad scheme” seems like a rite of passage for final year jobseekers.

Every autumn, soon-to-be graduates rush to submit their applications. We see them in the NHS, the civil service, and in the not so distant past, even the pub industry. But how many universities have considered recruiting from the inside?

The UK economy is seeking a workforce that is diverse, devolved from the capital, and highly skilled – and universities could be playing a big(ger) part.

Bright young things

According to HESA statistics, only 7 per cent of non-academic staff at UK HE providers were aged 21-25 in 2013-14. By contrast, almost double were aged 31-35. Age is a characteristic of diversity that we do not often think about. It is assumed that with age comes experience, but we could be ignoring a vast pool of talent too.

Employing recent graduates brings a whole new demographic’s worth of thought and experience diversity to professional services. Someone that enters HE mid-career is likely to have forgotten what it’s like to be a student, or to have little understanding of what it means to be a student in the present day. Recent graduates can plug this gap and enact a seamless transition between being the consumer of higher education, to being the service provider. Or, to reference the allusions of the Jarratt report, from the customer to the floor manager.

We also know that different elements of diversity – from socioeconomic background to ethnicity – are characteristics that define the most effective and creative professional teams. Last year, UCAS saw a record number of disadvantaged students accepted onto HE courses and if professional services roles are made available in the careers repository, we could also create a pipeline of diversity for future promotion into senior leadership roles. Therefore, boosting diversity at the top and making succession planning truly successful.

Location, location, location

Although perhaps pushed further down on the government’s priority list in recent months, levelling up is still on the civic agenda of many UK universities. The campaign recognises the geographical disparities in opportunity across the UK and the gaps in local and regional economies that have been created as a result.

Still, there is an incredible magnetism between young graduates and London. Whether it be the opportunity to work for one of the “Big Four”, the higher salaries, or the chance to indulge in a vibrant city life, graduates flock there in their thousands.

Research by Prospects found that of those graduates willing to relocate for a job, 46 per cent gave the reason “there aren’t many opportunities where I live.” And what can be found in most UK cities, no matter their economic position? A university.

Not only could universities be the key opening at least one of the doors to devolution from the capital, they can be competitive in their offering too. If finance, HR, international relations, or policy is your thing – university professional services can provide. Salaries can give other graduate employers a run for their money too, a far cry from the anecdotes of “starting from the bottom” that we hear from many seasoned university administrators.

Looking closer to home

At the risk of reciting a much-rehearsed refrain, the Office for Students cares about student outcomes. Massively. Graduate employment forms a large part of this, with the expectation that the majority will have secured either full-time employment or postgraduate study within 15 months of completing their degree.

In the current economic climate, the graduate labour market is surprisingly buoyant. The pandemic may well have played a part, with rocketing vacancies due to labour shortages being just one contributor. The September – November 2022 quarter also showed a 13 per cent decrease in the UK youth unemployment rate compared to January – March 2020.

Unfortunately, the pandemic did take its toll on some graduate schemes, forcing them to retract offers or close altogether. This included the Ambitious Futures programme which was dedicated to university leadership and was the only scheme of its kind. The merits of its recruitment however still stand.

If more universities consider recruiting graduates into their professional services – something that universities like Nottingham, Warwick, and Edinburgh are already doing – they may well capture a skilled and workplace-ready cohort of young education enthusiasts. Instead, many universities see hundreds of talented graduates leave their campuses each year. Something that, if we were speaking in economic migration terms, we may call “brain drain”.

A market to capture

Whilst cross-sector experience is always valuable, recent graduates do not fit the sometimes resented stereotype of the “university manager”. Rather than coming from “the outside”, they instead have a closeness to student life and bring their own front-stage experiences into behind-the-scenes roles.

Whether it’s the need for diversity amongst an “ageing” workforce, an appetite for retaining skills in local economies, or an innovative way to meet the outcomes quota, the employment of recent graduates into professional services roles may be the remedy to some of the HR headaches that the sector is currently experiencing.

The employment of graduates may indeed be a market to capture – rather than wave off – after graduation day.

10 responses to “Why graduates should work in higher education professional services

  1. Emily I am delighted to say that for the last 20 years of my career in the sector I have sought to employ both my university’s graduates and students in a whole variety of roles. For graduates they can bring huge insight and empathy in the delivery of student facing and back office services. I have always strived to develop a graduate training programme that over a 2 year period provides recent graduates with experience in different teams across the professional services proving an excellent grounding in “the basics” of the services we provide. Although I have to admit that the reality has never quite match the ambition. So today within the professionals service teams at University of Salford we do recruit our own graduates into our teams, we are also recruiting apprentices from our local community into entry level roles that they would otherwise simply not even know existed. Looking forward as we tackle some of the challenges of recruiting to key technical and specialist roles we are developing ‘fast track’ graduate roles as well as Level 7 degree apprenticeships. At a time when most employers are struggling to recruit, universities are uniquely placed to attract their own graduates and what better public statement in the quality of our own graduates to recruit and nurture them as the next generation of professional services colleagues.

    1. Emily – it was a pleasure to see your name pop up. It was a privilege to work with you when I did. My experience of working with graduate trainees at University has been brilliant and I’ve always gained so much from it personally and professionally.

      1. great to hear from you Nicola. and as trainees, it is a privilege to be surrounded by so many role models like yourself!

    2. wow! that’s fantastic. I completely agree, the breadth of services that universities offer is incredible and definitely gave me an amazingly diverse insight into different areas and functions. Also a brilliant way to see what you like and what most interests you before securing a permanent position. I am especially interested in seeing how Degree Apprenticeships programmes evolve too. thanks for this, John!

  2. Just here to not only agree, but also flag that Sheffield Hallam University were way ahead of the curve here. Whilst working there c2010/12 we launched both a graduate development programme for professional services careers and graduate tutor scheme for academic careers. And their joint development programme led to powerful cross institution networks and understanding. Something every university should be doing more of, they were exceptional additions to the university.

  3. I joined professional services in higher education upon graduating at 21 through a one off 6 month internship at a HEI, as I had a 2:2 and didn’t qualify for most graduate schemes. I’ve now been working in professional services in HE for 7 years and i’ve often been pulled into various projects due to my age and experience as a student. There was such an absence of colleagues under 30 when I started working and I can understand why it wouldn’t be a sector graduates thing about engaging with. I love working in the education sector, so glad I found my initial internship, I wasn’t actively encouraged by my university to look into these kinds of roles, and yet recent graduates seem to add so much value!

  4. As long as they are working and doing useful things, not simply ’employed’ to make the stats look better as we’ve had in the past, I can see some worth in investing in future talent, the danger is they become may become totally unemployable outside of the sector.

    1. “the danger is they become may become totally unemployable outside of the sector”

      Hi Jon, I don’t think this is a danger. From my experience many graduates working within the HE sector develop many valuable transferable skills that are relevant in other sectors, and many of these people do go on to very successful careers outside of HE.

  5. At Newcastle University we employ a lot of student workers and are always encouraging our students to consider roles at the University after they graduate. I would be really keen to hear more from a university that offers a graduate scheme though.

  6. I agree with the general point you make Emily, but would add a little more context as someone doing a PhD and observing university services as a ‘user’, as well as a past policy wonk who used to try and change parts of the education system for the better. But firstly just to say that there are more mature students in HE than there used to be (don’t know the exact stats) so the typical age profile of first and further degree graduates is bound to be older and this in itself isn’t a bad thing, wherever they end up – I’d be more concerned about other diversity indicators. More broadly the users of university services can get frustrated with the quality provided, particularly if they (and their relatives, sponsors etc) are paying what they perceive to be a lot of money for their degrees – this then has a negative effect on them joining their own university as an employee or even another university. I would welcome a study into this whole relationship and comparing it to non-UK nations where students pay far less for their courses. I do think it essential for universities to recruit the best talent, but equally to allow that talent to thrive and not be stifled by old-fashioned approaches sustained by centuries old precedent in some cases. There, I feel better now!

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