Your university is a catalyst for economic development

For Mike Grey, a few straightforward actions could unleash the full power of sector potential into local and regional economies.

Director at Gradconsult

A new Labour government could be on the horizon, and although commentator Sam Freedman stated recently that universities would potentially be about 37th on the list of spending priorities, the negative rhetoric around one of our countries most globally renowned sectors could dissipate.

Labour’s Peter Kyle vowed that under a new Labour government “the war on universities will end” on a recent visit to Keele University’s renewable energy project.

The economy has been scarred through Brexit, the disastrous impact of Trussonomics, and the government has abjectly failed to deliver on their much vaunted levelling up agenda.

In that context, it is galling that there is so much conjecture about so-called “low value courses” rather than focussing on how we could create more high-quality job opportunities across the UK for graduates and non-graduates alike.

What universities actually do

Whichever your political persuasion; universities will have a critical role in helping the ailing economy recover and grow. Universities are central to the skills agenda, are at the epicentre of the knowledge economy and, despite being pitted against them in a false binary ideological kerfuffle, they will have a key role in the growth in delivery of high-quality apprenticeships.

For most businesses operating in the vicinity of a university, the most mainstream driver to engage with their local institution is to attract and recruit talent. Careers services are therefore very often the door in and have a highly influential external engagement role which helps define the reputation of the institution.

Think of the volume of employers who hire your graduates versus how many engage in more niche activities such as knowledge transfer partnerships. When a business says a university is easy to work with and they have had a good experience of engaging with them, they will inevitably often mean the employer engagement functions of the careers services has efficiently delivered on their needs.

A wise senior colleague I worked with in my early career in the sector often pointed out that a university having a strong relationship with a business was quite often based on a specific individual relationship. If either person left the institution or business how sustainable would that partnership be? Many institutions seek to outsource some of these business development activities to manage costs, but this is inherently risky and can limit potential for strategic partnership development.

Prioritising putting in structures and support mechanisms to support the development and retention of these partnerships is critical to positioning the university as a catalyst for regional economic development.

How graduate employment is changing

There are some key national labour market trends that universities need to respond to, these include demand in the labour market (but graduate underutilisation remains an issue), with skills shortages and recruitment difficulties are significant and worsening in some sectors.

Graduate mobility seems to be falling, so creating opportunities for graduates to build their professional career locally is critical. There are a wide range of external facing services that engage with employers whose objectives overlap with careers services. Enhanced internal reporting mechanisms need to be created to increase visibility of employer services and related activity and to increase collaboration between the key business-facing services. This is vital to provide a joined-up approach to employers and to allow for wider, and more permeable, partnerships to be developed.

Careers services can work with other teams and services to identify strategic collaborative projects to create specific solutions to increase mutual understanding between functions and to contribute to delivery of institutional strategic agendas. Indicative examples of partnership projects that can take place include working with procurement to embed requirements for virtual or physical employability support and exclusive opportunities in tender processes for key university contracts, and working in partnership with human resources to create and promote professional pathways and opportunities within the institution. This is important because most universities are actually the top employer of their own graduates!

It is important to ensure all staff are trained on the offer to employers during induction processes, as is working in partnership with the development and alumni relations teams to identify and leverage relationships with alumni working in target employers and to develop global networking events. Of course, creating joint employer events with the Student Union that cover key issues in graduate recruitment and the world of work such as diversity, wellbeing and sustainability is hugely important.

Over the last two decades, we have seen a dramatic shift in the positioning of careers and employability support within UK universities. Up until the early 2000s the university careers service was viewed as a central student support unit designed to provide information, advice and guidance to students as they transitioned from university into their chosen career.

A huge growth in student numbers, an increased institutional focus on metrics, a rise in the formal discourse around work related learning, a growing focus on embedded employability and the introduction of Access and Participation Plans have all served to catapult careers services to centre stage in a brand-new university ecosystem focused on improving student experience, reducing progression gaps and delivering work ready talent to their region and beyond.

Alongside their pivotal external engagement role, the work of the university careers team is now inextricably linked to that of a myriad of different internal teams including academics; those involved in learning and teaching support; recruitment teams; alumni support; student advice and wellbeing. This makes collaboration and partnership working essential and necessitates a reimagining of service delivery.

This may involve experimenting with new delivery models, developing more holistic student success teams, investing in different technology solutions or adopting alternative strategies to better engage students, academics and employers.

A new government could bring new opportunities, universities must be ready to capitalise. This is a time for bold action to future-proof provision. If not now, when?

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