Seeing beyond the Fog: University Horizon Scanning of the Future Labour Market

Dr Anthony Mansfield

University of East London

At the heart of Higher Education (HE), universities strive to ensure students achieve their aspirations. For many prospective and current students, the baseline after their journey through HE is a meaningful and fulfilling career. Of course, efforts are routinely made to enhance student and graduate opportunities, however, in the ever-changing landscape of employment the question remains: how do HE providers ensure the programme portfolio and wider provision of support give students the best possible prospects?

The environment that universities operate within has laid out a clear mandate to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Three drivers outside of university fuel the desire for increased knowledge of the labour market: government, public perception, and the employer – all of which have an interconnected relationship.

University leadership has always been interested in league tables. Published rankings have measured employability amongst other metrics such as good honours, completion, and even research quality. Therefore, a focus on improving these metrics has always been present. Government emphasis on outcomes of education, nevertheless, has grown in part due to the availability of big datasets. The impetuous has been underscored in the formulation of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) as well as the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset. The former – up to this point – has focussed heavily on the rate of graduates in highly-skilled roles; by contrast, the latter has highlighted the earnings of graduates. Such publications and datasets are visible and impact the reputation of a university at a time when Higher Education providers compete in fierce conditions for undergraduate enrolments.

We cannot underestimate the influence of tuition fees in the renewed focus on outcomes. Students carry a heavy burden through taking out loans and leaving HE with up to fifty-thousand pounds worth of debt – a wellbeing as well as financial drain. The increasing levels of participation, furthermore, have seen regular column inches dedicated to challenging the significance of HE and at times diminishing the achievement of graduating. The perception has become that a degree is commonplace and not an accomplishment in itself, has permeated the labour market too.

The increasing number of graduates gives employers a highly-educated workforce, and they seek, therefore, to differentiate candidates. Other skills, competencies and experiences are desired in addition to a degree as society stands on the precipice of Industry 4.0. In the age of big data and increasing impact of automation, employers need a workforce that is resilient, adaptable, innovative and passionate.

None of the observations above is to say that the stress on outcomes is misplaced or incorrect; instead it has required universities to recalibrate their efforts in which they hone in on the later stage of the student journey. An undergraduate degree can instil the skills and traits that an employer needs; however, the prevailing belief is that graduates need more and consequently the university needs to provide students with guidance, training and significant job opportunities.

Rightly, senior leaders, academics, and service staff are working to understand the labour market to prepare their students for life after graduation. To provide answers to these challenges there needs to be a strategic approach in understanding the environment outside of the institution’s walls. In any organisation, leaders need to have information to allow them to appreciate the broader context and confidently make decisions in the best interest of the students. For many institutions, such contextual insight is gleaned through a strategic horizon scanning function.

The horizon scanning function – often an activity led by a Strategic Planning unit– allows a university to see emerging trends that are not clear today. The process enables the assessment of potential opportunities and threats for effective planning and portfolio management. Understanding the labour market over the next ten years is not a light undertaking; gaining a sense of the market for just 2019 is not enough either. The decisions that will be made take time to implement and bare fruit; therefore, the labour market needs to be evaluated for at least the next ten years.

For a university, initiatives that promote highly-skilled employment are not enough. The programme portfolio needs to be critically reviewed to establish if it provides students with what they need for skilled jobs. Consequently, a deep dive of the labour market through investigation of large quantitative datasets, policy reports and even qualitative interviews is crucial from sources such as government, professional bodies, policy groups, and confederations. We should not forget the importance of the qualitative approach supporting the use of big data as projections based solely on datasets can be misleading in predicting future trends in the labour market – a poignant consideration as we come closer to the integration of further automation.

Although conclusions drawn from these datasets focus on the student journey from the perspective of outcomes they do also inform the front end. Universities can use this data to review their portfolio and align it to growing sectors in the economy which will meet the demand of prospective students and employers. As a student enters the university, an institution can provide assurance and opportunities outside of the classroom by using labour market data to set up initiatives (accreditations, knowledge exchange partnerships, apprenticeships or even internships) and develop programmes that allow students to develop their key competencies.

In the end, the focus on the outcome has caused a renewed appraisal of the student journey in its entirety which cannot be considered a bad thing.