Conference Review: Making Every Graduate Employable

“Making Every Graduate Employable” is surely an incontestable aim in these days of tuition fees and soaring student debt: whether or not undergraduate and graduate students see employment as the primary aim of their studies, being (more) employable at the end must surely be a positive indicator of their experience.

It was also the theme of a thoroughly engaging conference, run by Policy-UK this week, which IFF sponsored.

The opening sessions set a context for the debate, and ran through a “state of play” of post-graduation employment, highlighting that

  • Graduates in certain subject areas are more in demand than others, and demand higher salaries, but generally it remains the case that gaining a degree leads to better employment outcomes than not having one
  • Nevertheless, there remains a sizeable minority of graduates who are in non-graduate jobs fifteen months after graduation (just over a third of all employed graduates from three year courses)
  • The range of factors which can impact employment outcomes is huge, and includes factors personal to the graduate and labour market and economic factors, as well as graduate characteristics and learning outcomes
  • Work experience and work placements are having an increasingly significant impact on employability and graduate outcomes

Changing the way we measure employability:

The conference then went on to look at how one measures employability, and creating an employability framework. Dan Cook outlined plans to restructure the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, the sector’s key common means of measurement. As research specialists, with a long and proud history of working to measure graduate destinations, IFF warmly welcomes the drive to create a unified, centralised survey which is taken out of the hands of individual HEIs. Sure there will be challenges involved, and the caution of some HEIs and some individuals in HEIs – whose individual performance indicators include the need to improve employment outcomes / DLHE measures – is fully understandable and should be taken into consideration. But the change need not be the threat that many fear. A growing number of progressive, forward-looking HEIs are already working with IFF for the delivery of their DLHE, leveraging IFF’s extensive experience in this space as well as freeing up their own time and resources.

Clearly a key facet of #NewDLHE will be the drive to broaden the measurement of outcomes beyond employment and salary. Dan briefly talked through some of the likely new areas of focus. The “graduate voice” section struck us as of particular interest. This would ask graduates whether they are using what they have learnt, whether they are in ‘meaningful’ work as well as exploring how ‘on-track’ they feel they are. IFF has explored this notion of “on-trackness” through various surveys over the years, including an ambitious tracking study for SFC and the Planning for Success survey for BIS, and believe that it has a significant role to play in the determination of positive outcomes.

Dr Bob Gilworth from the Careers Group talked further to this notion of “On Trackness”, demonstrating how employability-related questions can be incorporated into student registration data and the power of doing so. By understanding at what stage a student is at in terms of their career planning when they start university, you can better measure student progress, provide the right support when they need it and even start to evaluate the impact of employability activities. It strikes us that – LEO data notwithstanding – any initiative which manages to combine administrative data collection with survey data should be pursued, In order to stretch the potential of scarce resources.

Professor Tristram Hooley then brought the debate squarely back into the realms of action, enumerating the various factors which contribute to employability and crucially suggesting a range of actions that individual graduates can undertake to enhance and improve their own employability, and how HEIs can support them.

Frameworks to help build a brighter future

The conference closed with two inspiring sessions led by “employer-academics” Doctor Roy Priest and Professor Geoff Skates, who explained how they had created courses (in sound technology and engineering, respectively) in which engagement with employers and industry was truly a cornerstone. This laid out a utopic framework for how things can work in the best of all worlds. The challenge will be in seeing how / whether this can be adopted more widely, and whether the model can be applicable across all subject groups and all sectors of the economy.

In our company, we’d be delighted to work with a HEI to offer real work experience to students looking for a career in research, social science and/or public policy. We have a team looking into this right now, but any interested colleagues should feel free to get in touch with me directly using the details below: