Attendance at campus recruitment events is booming. Paul Redmond at the University of Liverpool explains what’s happening and why.
Imagine you’re a new university student. For almost as long as you can remember, learning has taken place via Zoom. Lectures, workshops, seminars, meetings with tutors, even social events, all have been delivered via the ubiquitous medium of the internet.
Included in that is every careers activity you’ve ever experienced: meetings with careers advisers, UCAS talks, university open days. Without leaving your bedroom you’ve even managed to chalk up several virtual internships.
Then one day an email arrives. You’re invited to a radical new event designed to help you plan your future by giving you an opportunity to speak directly with dozens of graduate recruiters on campus.
Only this time, the organisers boast, you won’t need to click on any links, download any software, or worry about the strength of your internet connection. In fact, you won’t even need an internet connection.
That’s because the event is taking place … in person.
It’s called a careers fair, and if this semester is anything to go by, it might just catch on.
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” – Mark Twain
“BC” (before Covid) careers fairs were on life support. Universities had been running them annually since at least the 1970s and they were beginning to get in a rut. As with ‘Strictly Come Dancing,’ each year was predicted to be their last. But they kept on dancing.
Employers too were beginning to get sore feet. The lure of large scale, global virtual recruitment events made parochial careers fairs look outdated, tired even. Who wants to lug display stands from campus to campus when at the click of a mouse entire global audiences could be summoned?
And who wants to spend all day behind a stand, dishing out Quality Street, when you could hang out on some cool Silicon Valley platform? Why settle for being you when you could be your squirrel avatar?
Digital platforms for digital natives
The time looked right for a revolution. Even before the pandemic, universities had been experimenting with online teaching and assessment. On most campuses, new ‘hyflex’ spaces were appearing designed to enable hybrid learning.
Given that most students were now “digital natives” born into a world of ubiquitous technology, this was considered to be essential, if on graduation they were to be not just employed, but employable.
“You’re on mute!”
All this was to be revolutionised by the pandemic. With incredible ingenuity, skill and innovation, universities and graduate recruiters migrated many of their core activities to online platforms.
Graduate recruiters were at the forefront, providing thousands of virtual internships to students who, because of lockdown, would have missed out on valuable work experience.
Out of necessity, many university courses also switched to online teaching – for almost two years, students were inducted, taught and assessed online.
But revolutions seldom run to plan.
Two years of forced online meetings and working from home has rewired attitudes to learning by Zoom. Many of today’s post-pandemic students view online not as Second Life, but as second best.
Which may explain why this year, attendance at campus recruitment events has soared. Beginning with Welcome Week, students have engaged enthusiastically and energetically with all our campus activities – and none more so than those arranged by our careers and student success teams.
The University of Liverpool autumn careers fair attracted over 3,000 students; the part-time jobs fair attracted similar numbers. Alongside this, participation in clubs and societies has also been spiralling, particularly those involving values-led themes, such as environmentalism and sustainability. For the first time in years, we are beginning to worry about venue capacity.
So why is this happening? And why now?
Belonging and inclusion – the missing link
Let’s be clear. The internet offers lots of fantastic opportunities for universities and recruiters: it’s reduced distances and reduced costs, particularly around travel. Educationally, the internet provides huge benefits for students to engage with academics and fellow learners. It would be disastrous if we were to reverse entirely the advances made over the past two years.
That said, it’s equally clear that nothing replaces face-to-face engagement, particularly for young people. That’s why our Welcome programme this year had two central themes: creating a sense of belonging and inclusion; and helping students make friends.
To make sure all were equally engaged, we invited our ‘commuter students’ – those living off campus and who are traditionally less likely to participate in Welcome activities – to join us a week early, so that they could be made to feel that they too belong. Similar invitations were sent to mature students and those with disabilities.
As a result, once the semester began, levels of engagement have remained consistently high – and that includes attendance in lectures.
Careers Fair 2.0
For the next few years, my prediction is that face-to-face student events will remain extremely popular, with those online continuing to be viewed as replacements rather than improvements.
I do, however, believe that there is lots of room for a compromise whereby universities and recruiters work together to provide genuinely hybrid solutions – events that offer both real life and virtual experiences – and without having to wear clunky headsets. Think of it as Careers Fair 2.0.
My advice is don’t sell those Meta shares just yet. You might regret it.
Read more from universities about what students want