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The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.
Bob Athwal, Director of Student Experience at the University of Leicester, looks deeper into the latest encouraging graduate market statistics and finds even more reasons to be optimistic, as it appears major employers are finally casting their net wider than the traditional milk round circuit.
It may be mid-winter, but there were two pieces of news to warm the hearts of prospective UK graduates last month. The latest survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) predicts an 11.9% rise in vacancies in the coming recruitment round – well up on a 4.3% increase last year. The signs that employer confidence is growing were already clear: the annual High Fliers study of Britain’s top 100 Milk Round employers found 7.9% more graduates were hired in 2014 than the previous year, with 8.1% additional vacancies planned for 2015.
All these are positive signs in general, but look deeper and a still more interesting picture emerges. Both surveys show not only a newfound optimism and desire to hire: they also reveal that, while recruitment went up, employers didn’t manage to find all the graduates they wanted. More than 700 graduate positions went unfilled last year, according to High Fliers, while AGR’s members reported 1,422 vacancies – and blamed a lack of the right skills or appropriate work experience (and indeed graduates actually reneging on offers at the last minute).
So what’s going to resolve this mismatch? How will employers find the candidates they need, and indeed how can prospective graduates prepare themselves properly for the vacancies available? What can break the Milk Round mould?
The answer, as the latest reports are revealing, is that top employers will cast the net wider. Recruiters are already moving beyond the same Russell Group institutions the Milk Round has always called at: my own university, Leicester – already a top 20 university academically, has appeared for the first time in the High Fliers list of the top 25 universities targeted by key employers in 2014/15. Of course that’s great for us, but, because our student body is more socially and ethnically diverse than other top universities, it also shows that major graduate recruiters really are now actively looking for candidates from a wider range of backgrounds (even if they haven’t got a Duke of Edinburgh gold award and parents with the “right” contacts). Social mobility is high on the agenda for these companies: the old guard of recruiters has been replaced by a new, less traditional generation. Even if they could find enough graduate numbers, they no longer want “more of the same”.
But if employers, pushed by a recovering economy, are beginning to reach out more than before, what are universities doing to meet that requirement? We can’t simply sit and wait and hope our bright, less well-connected students can take advantage of a warmer welcome from the recruiters – we need to take up that responsibility. After all, the new surveys show employers are also turning more to school leavers as another way to plug the gap – we don’t want Milk Round doors to close on non-traditional graduates just as they’re beginning to open.
That’s why, at Leicester, we’ve spent the last three years transforming our career development service to put employability at the heart of everything we do. We know we offer our students a fantastic academic experience, equipping them with intellectual curiosity. But we also need to prepare them meticulously for the competitive world of work, where a degree is no longer enough. Historically, employers haven’t come to universities like Leicester because we didn’t give them enough of the candidates with the skills they need. But now our huge focus on helping students explore their interests and research and plan for careers is turning that on its head. Under our “Make the most of you” programme, we support them to build their skills, meet employers, gain work experience, practice mock assessments and really compete for the role they want. Over half of our 13,000 students have used our services in 2014/15, and we’re not even halfway through the academic year.
And that brings me to the third part of the equation: the students themselves. This, I believe, is where the traditional Milk Round mould really is cracking at last. With the sort of intensive careers support we have been able to give, we have seen students from working class backgrounds grow more confident about applying for jobs with the top graduate recruiters: PWC, Deloitte, EY, KMG and the rest. With good preparation, they now believe they are as good as students with far more social capital, and indeed that they have something different to offer which will positively attract employers. They are starting to win internships, get interviews, gain offers – compete, in other words, on equal terms at last.
This is a turning point in student recruitment. Employers are increasingly buoyant – they’re telling us what they want and they’re increasingly willing to go to new places to find it. The door is opening, and non-traditional graduates should push it, with universities supporting them.
Get the full picture from HEi-know: See our Briefing Report on the AGR and High Fliers research
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