Breaking the student-graduate stereotype

Professor Roger Lewis, YU Associate

In spite of the profound changes in the university student body over recent decades, something of a ‘stereotype’ persists: the 18-year-old choosing a course and university by consulting prospectuses, friends and family, then leaving home to study and live in a hall of residence. After getting a degree the graduate moves again to some other part of the country, to begin a ‘career’.

The model, influential in driving the sector’s growth, has never told the complete story of higher education. Although part-time study has reduced significantly over the current decade, many part-time students work during the day and then participate in evening study; thousands of students who study by distance or open learning from home, work or a mobile base. But these students have often seemed marginal to decisions about funding, curriculum and learning provision.

Two blogs published this autumn have again highlighted the diversity within HE. Malcolm Press (VC of Manchester Metropolitan University)  reminds us of the increasing number of students who commute, study on-line or in work via higher level apprenticeships. Institutions need to consider the learning and social needs of these students and adjust provision accordingly.

A blog by Charlie Ball: ‘There’s no such thing as the national graduate labour market’ introducing a new publication ‘What do graduates do?’ (AGCAS/HECSU) contains some striking figures (all from 2016-17). Only 18% of students moved away from home to go to university and then made a second move to somewhere else on graduation; 69% worked in the region in which they had lived and studied.

The types of job have also changed, reflecting labour market trends, with a move away from a structured career and a shift towards employment characterised by short-term contracts, flexible and mobile working arrangements, working from home through the routine use of ‘new technology’. HE careers’ offices have begun to adapt their services towards a new reality and the Office for Students has created a £5.6m fund (‘No place like home’) to invest in projects that can boost opportunities for graduates who seek work closer to home.

Staying in one’s home region is not necessarily second-best if flexible HE provision and subsequent graduate quality jobs are available.. A new graduate will have friends and family close by, and will be connected to the structures of their locality, enjoying benefits (in Yorkshire for example) of access to coast, countryside and to lively cities and towns.

All this calls for an even greater focus on the part of universities on the specific places in which they are located and the wide range of potential students available. With employability prospects in mind, HEIs need to strengthen their knowledge of, and links to, local and regional labour markets They need to be alert both to the current landscape and to future trends relating to skills, innovation, knowledge and enterprise. What is the university’s footprint? Who are the main employers? How can more businesses be attracted to an area and to employ more graduates? To answer such questions, universities will need to continue to work closely with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships and of course influence the preparation and implementation of local and regional strategies.

In taking forward this agenda, the interests of four groups of stakeholder interests coincide. For universities:  developing their local recruitment, linking with local employers to improve retention/employment statistics; building a closer relationship with local communities. For students:  a curriculum relevant to local employability prospects; engaging with potential employers as a routine part of their courses; better prospects of finding quality employment. For employers: working with students via placements to address business challenges; graduates with appropriate skills and understanding of business. Fourthly, the region: retaining and using skilled graduates committed to living within the locality and improving it in terms of productivity and as a place in which to live and work.

Choices over where to study and what job to choose on graduation are best assured when a diversity of provision is available. Looked at regionally, Yorkshire is well-placed here, with its universities offering a wide range of courses and modes of study and with distinct and complementary links with the labour market.

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