Building back student confidence in graduate employment

Oct 26, 2021 | Sector & policy

Co-chair Mary Curnock Cook explains the work of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and the need to boost student confidence in graduate employment.

For more than 18 months now, universities have worked against the odds to keep students on track during the Covid-19 pandemic – with minimal government support. It’s been gruelling, but also inspiring, with deep collaboration and innovation in evidence across the sector.

The UPP Foundation, alongside Group GTI, Shakespeare Martinaeu and Wonkhe, set up the Student Futures Commission to build on these collaborative efforts.

Its inquiry focuses on how universities can take action to support students’ futures, building back the student experience, and preparing students for the workplace. In sum, it’s interested in rebuilding the foundations for students’ future professional careers.

Over the past few months we’ve heard evidence across the higher education sector, as well as from prospective students.

On 4 November an ISE webinar Successful Futures for Students will share the commission’s findings to date and plans for future.

Lack of student confidence 

One of our standout findings has been an overall lack of student confidence. As was covered in the Commission’s interim report ahead of the start of the academic year, students feel they are a cohort with ‘fake grades’ that might hurt their future employment prospects; they feel they are below where they should be academically; and they are anxious about developing social and professional relationships.

Overwhelmingly, they are downcast about their job prospects and in the strength of graduate employment opportunities.

In a poll of over 4000 students the Commission ran at the start of the pandemic, only 50% of current undergraduates were confident about the job market. And this lack of confidence is not unfounded . We’ve been particularly dismayed to hear from students that many employers don’t even acknowledge job applications, let alone give feedback.

Many have opted out of pursuing graduate employment opportunities, turning instead to ‘panic Master’s’ to postpone their entry to what they perceive to be a disastrously competitive recruitment market

Changing priorities

Students are also clearly cognisant about the changes taking place in the workplace. The rise of home working across many sectors, not just in universities, means that students’ priorities for their first graduate job have also changed, reflecting trends in the labour market.

The Group GTI poll found that flexible working, job security and opportunities for training and development are all more important for graduates than before the pandemic, with location less important.

And with the freelance economy in the UK now worth £109 billion and 53% of Gen Z-ers  now say they’d be interested in starting their own business, it’s on employers to make sure they innovate their graduate offering to ensure they continue to attract the most talented students who are increasingly looking for something different.

Many young people are now hoping to amass a diverse range of professional experience by flexibly ‘productising’ their skills, experiencing multiple roles and sectors throughout their working lives. Increasingly, we have entered the era of the portfolio career and the ‘no-collar’ worker.

Challenges for universities

This picture poses two key challenges for universities which are under increasing regulatory and market pressure to prepare their graduates for successful careers.

The first is how universities can work with employers to improve careers advice and guidance that prepares graduates for non-traditional workplaces as we transition post pandemic to a more flexible work environment.

The second challenge concerns curriculum. If people will need to be regularly reskilled, might the disciplinary silos that characterise today’s higher education landscape in the UK also need rethinking?

You can follow the Commission’s work via our website, and find out more about our inquiry ahead of our final report, which will be published in early 2022.

Register for ISE webinar Successful Futures for Students on 4 November to hear the commission’s findings to date and plans for the future.




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