Whatever next? Predictions for student employment in 2021

Jan 5, 2021 | Sector & policy

After offering his gloomy take on 2020, ISE’s Tristram Hooley looks forward to 2021. But, what does the new year have in store for student employment?

The future stretches out before us full of possibility. Everything could change or most things could stay the same. The one thing that we can be certain of is that predictions made at the start of the year are bound to be wrong.

Last year I set out some New Year’s resolutions for student employers. They are all still sensible suggestions, but none of them showed any insights for what the main challenges of 2020 would be. So, this year I’m really going to throw caution to the wind and try and make some predictions. In a year’s time you can all remind me how wrong I was.

  • 2020 is going to throw a long shadow. Despite all the talk of returning to a new (or old) normal the changes that employers made during 2020 are not going to go away quickly. I predict that there will be no return to campus-based recruitment in 2021, that careers fairs will be just a nostalgic memory, that organisations will only be able to make a slow return to face-to-face recruitment and that homeworking will remain important throughout the year. What is more some of these changes are going to stick as organisations figure out how to do things differently, and possibly cheaper, than before.
  • Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear. As recent warnings from the World Health Organisation remind us, the vaccine isn’t likely to end Covid-19 altogether (even if the rollout goes smoothly, which so far it isn’t). The first quarter of 2021 is likely to require a lot of similar restrictions to those that we faced in 2020. After that, hopefully things will start to improve, but some public health measures, including forms of social distancing, are likely to have to stay in place for the foreseeable future. For student employers this probably means that 2020 provides a more useful template for recruitment and development in 2021 than the pre-pandemic era.
  • We’ll be talking about Brexit all year. Although the Brexit deal is now done and the UK has Brexited, call for us to put discussions behind us may be a little premature. There is a lot still to be clarified and negotiated over the next year(s) and how these discussion go will make a big difference. The deal that is struck on services industries (which comprise about 80% of the UK economy and a very substantial share of ISE membership) is going to be key. Other key issues are going to be around professional qualifications, data sharing and the wider shake out from the new arrangements. In addition, the UK will have to put in place a range of replacements for various EU funding pots, which open the possibility for lots of new policies and initiatives.
  • Economic recovery is going to be slow. The UK finished 2020 with Gross Domestic Product substantially down from 2019, the budget deficit rising, and unemployment also increasing. Given this it is unsurprising that the Office for Budgetary Responsibility is predicting a fairly gloomy future for the economy. Analysis from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that the UK has been particularly badly hit by the Covid-downturn. So far, we have only seen this feed through into student recruitment in a fairly minor way. Organisations have generally been bouncing back from last year’s picture of depressed recruitment. But, 2021 has quite a bit more to throw at people. My guess (and it is really no more than that) is that recruitment will level out in 2020/2021, but then decline further in 2021/2022 as the recession really takes hold.
  • Universities will come through it all OK. Despite fears earlier in the year about the way in which Covid could impact on universities, higher education has managed to make its way through the crisis relatively unscathed. While questions have been asked about the student experience, the students (and therefore the money) have continued to flow into the sector. An economic downturn is only likely to increase the appeal of both undergraduate and postgraduate study.

Finally, it is worth taking a bit of a step back. When I lay out these predictions it is easy to focus on what is changing and to view 2020 as a bizarre wild card which has transformed everything. But, when we take a longer view the changes that we have seen in 2020 look less remarkable. Continuity remains as just as powerful a force as change.

Student employers were already changing the way they did things long before 2020. There has been a long-term trend of digitisation which has given birth to e-recruitment and e-learning. 2020 just accelerated adoption and created an impetus for these gradual changes to happen more rapidly. Similarly, Brexit, is nothing new, the UK has been arguing about its relationship with the EU for decades, and these arguments are likely to go on rather than be stopped by Brexit. The economy has been shaky since the crash of 2008 and many argue that Covid has just exposed these long-term structural issues again. Finally, the position of universities as a key pathway to decent work has been strengthening for decades and government’s have struggled to establish alternative pathways.

So, that’s my predictions for 2021. The more things change, the more they stay they same. But, who knows what will actually happen? This time next year I’ll probably be trying to explain how the invasion from Alpha Centauri just exacerbates existing trends in psychometric assessment.

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