Review of 2023

Dec 21, 2023 | Home Featured, News, Sector & policy

AI, resilient early career jobs market, students hit by cost-of-living crisis, and visa confusion ends the year: ISE’s joint CEO, Stephen Isherwood, reviews the big stories of 2023.


One of the biggest news items within the early careers sector began back in January when ChatGPT3 earned a grade B in a Wharton MBA exam paper.

By June, student newspaper The Tab reported that over 400 students were under investigation for using ChatGPT to cheat. All of which promoted the ISE to ask: if AI can pass exams, should employers worry who is writing the answers to their application form questions?

But students weren’t the only ones who started using AI in 2023. Student employers increasingly turned to AI to improve hiring efficiencies with nearly a third of employers now using AI in recruitment, up from 9% last year.

The most common reason? To manage large application volumes. ISE employers received over 900,000 applications for graduate jobs during 2022/23, a 23% increase on the previous year.

Concerns about a worsening economy could be the reason students, nervous about their job prospects, made more applications.

But, despite high interest rates and low economic growth, ISE data showed the early career market strengthened through 2023 as vacancy levels remained high. Much higher than in China where the government stopped publishing the youth unemployment rate once it surpassed 20%.

Financial pressure

This is not to say students and graduates have had an easy year. The cost-of-living crisis hit students particularly hard.

More than one in four universities operated a food bank for students and when HEPI compared the average maintenance loan to average rents, students were left with £24 in their pockets.

Financial pressures also impacted young people as they entered work – many now face being worse off than their parents said the Social Mobility Commission.

As well as economic headwinds, declining pay and conditions soured industrial relations in many sectors. Healthcare, teacher and rail worker strikes across the country grabbed the headlines for much of the year, but so did graduating students hit by the marking ban.

Many students didn’t receive their final grades over the summer due to a marking ban which was only lifted in October. Some students struck back as nearly 1,000 took UCL to court over disruption caused by Covid and strikes. The university was given eight months to resolve the dispute by the High Court.

Vocational learning

At least the education minister responsible for universities and apprentices, Robert Halfon, kept his job and has been in post for over a year now (his predecessor lasted four months).

Halfon has spent the year focused on vocational learning and has said many times that ‘degree’ and ‘apprentice’ are his two favourite words in the English language.

But many still want changes to the apprenticeship levy system: ‘The apprentice levy has failed the UK economy’ and requires urgent reform, said Balfour Beatty’s CEO during National Apprenticeship Week. The Co-op also called for apprentice levy reform and argued that £600m in levy funds are currently wasted.

Britain generally does well in educating enough young people to graduate level, but fails to train enough of those that don’t, argued a report from the Resolution Foundation and the LSE. 30% of 18-year-olds aren’t in education or training, which is a rate significantly higher than those in our major competitor countries. Numeracy and literacy rates of 24-year-olds are much worse than in France or Germany.

Calls for change to the funding and structures of further and higher education ran throughout the year.

Previous ISE conference speaker, Andy Westwood, argued that England’s tertiary education system is broken (policy is devolved). He suggested that the next government should create a reformed single system to oversee FE, HE, adult education and apprenticeships, not focus on tuition fees.

In the UK we seem unable to have an open debate about tuition fees – the £9,250 fee in England is now only worth £6,600 to universities compared to when the cap was introduced.

Tuition fees need to rise to stop the decline of the UK’s university sector, said the director of the Social Market Foundation. Which is why internationals students, who can pay as much as £20,000 per year to study in the UK, have become so important to universities.

International students

The number of EU students studying in the UK has dropped by half since 2016, but the HE sector hit its 600,000 international student recruitment target eight years early in 2023.

In the last few weeks of 2023, immigration and visas again dominated parliamentary business.

Students, careers teams and employers have been left in a state of limbo after James Cleverly announced a 50% increase in the salary threshold for the skilled worker visa to £38,700. This may be reduced for early career entrants, but it is doubtful any details will be published until well into the New Year.

And what does the ISE predict will be the trends for 2023? You’ll have to wait for our blog post in the New Year to find out.

In the meantime, thanks to all our members who have supported the ISE throughout 2023. Wishing you, your families and friends, a lovely festive season.

You may also be interested in ISE’s 10 most viewed blogs of 2023

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