For the clear majority of students, having a degree ensures higher salaries, greater job security and less likelihood of unemployment. In 2019, the median salary of working-age graduates was £34,000, £9,000 more than the median non-graduate salary. Nearly two-thirds of graduates were in highly skilled employment, as against 23.9 per cent of non-graduates.101
Current graduate employment prospects are extremely uncertain. The coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns have resulted in a severe economic contraction. Many businesses have gone into administration and many more have instigated a hiring freeze. The impact is likely to be geographically uneven and long-lasting.
The OfS supports universities and colleges to provide opportunities that develop the types of skills that will enable graduates to gain meaningful employment throughout their working lives. This chapter explores the pandemic’s potential effect on the economy, its likely impact on final year students and recent graduates, and how university and college careers services are responding. It examines a number of the more persistent attainment and employment gaps for certain groups of graduates, and looks at how the OfS and the government are helping to fill skills gaps.
Current issues for recent graduates
It is too early to say how adversely the pandemic will affect the economy, or assess the extent of any resulting economic scarring. There is no consensus about how the economy might recover, and there may be longer-term repercussions for students looking to start their careers.102 The number of students undertaking postgraduate degrees is growing and is likely to be buoyant this year as students look to upskill during the pandemic.
The impact on graduate employment is so far fairly uncertain. Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that while 33 per cent of graduate employers surveyed said they were going to hire fewer graduates, and 6 per cent said no graduates, 27 per cent said they would hire more.103 A survey conducted by Prospects in May found that, of over 1,200 final year students who responded, 26 per cent had lost their work placement or internship, 29 per cent had lost their job, and 28 per cent had had a job offer deferred or cancelled.104
Apprentices appear to be especially affected by the pandemic, and many have concerns about what this might mean for their job prospects. Employers surveyed by the Sutton Trust in early April reported that on average just 39 per cent of apprenticeships were continuing as normal. Over a third of apprentices (36 per cent) had been furloughed and 8 per cent made redundant. 17 per cent of apprentices had had their off-the-job learning suspended.105
Some industries have been more affected than others by lockdowns. These include the leisure, transport and retail sectors. A Resolution Foundation report showed that, before the pandemic, one in five graduates worked in these sectors one year after graduating.106
Ensuring there are enough graduates for public services is an important part of our work. This includes careers in health and medicine, where numbers of students are expected to increase this year and beyond.
During spring and summer 2020, many universities, colleges and employers adapted quickly to continue to support graduates. Careers services vary across the sector, but most students will be able to access a service to help them consider their options and prepare to go into employment after their studies.
Universities and colleges typically offer a wide range of career support services, from CV-writing to networking events. The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services has highlighted how the need to respond rapidly to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic has led to greater use of vlogs, podcasts, online chats and live streams to deliver support to students and graduates.107 University and college employment support staff are increasingly linking up with academic staff and employers to provide a more holistic service for students. Many universities and colleges have faced challenges in delivering their services online and understanding how they can be adapted to meet students’ needs.
There were concerns that the move to online delivery of careers advice during the outbreak would present barriers for students who might not, for a number of reasons, be able to participate in activities intended to help them into the workplace. For example, students with particular impairments may have found the change challenging, as well as those with additional caring responsibilities resulting from school closures or the need to look after relatives.
Disabled students may have additional concerns about the extent to which employers will make reasonable adjustments during the pandemic, and whether more permanent changes to working practices in its aftermath may adversely affect their working lives. Some university and college career services offer webinars tailored to the needs of disabled students – for example, on how to ask for reasonable adjustments, and job-hunting advice for students with specific impairments. To help disabled students with their move into the workplace, some university and college employment services are giving advice about what support they are entitled to expect from an employer, encouraging employers and recruiters to offer guaranteed interviews to disabled students, and offering support to employers to design appropriate reasonable adjustments for students who may be vulnerable during lockdown.
Many of the immediate challenges faced by universities and colleges during the pandemic have been technical, requiring them to swiftly shift to providing services remotely. As the extent of the economic damage becomes clearer, the next challenge is likely to be strategic – the need to adapt medium- to long-term provision amid uncertainties about funding, the economy and students’ abilities to secure jobs after their studies.
Some students enter higher education precisely because it allows geographical mobility.108 Graduates who are more mobile can earn more.109 Even so, looking at graduates who were under 21 when they started their course, 42.1 per cent of those in work were employed in their home area.110
The impact of the pandemic is likely to be geographically uneven. Before the pandemic, many graduate jobs were concentrated in cities. A report from Centre for Cities found that London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds accounted for 34.7 per cent of all employment for 2014 and 2015 graduates from UK universities.111 There has been some suggestion that the pandemic might rebalance graduate employment away from major cities as more people work from home, but this remains to be seen.112
To help effect change, the OfS has invested £5.6 million in funding to help create more opportunities for graduates who seek highly skilled employment in their home region. These include curriculum interventions and internships. We continue to evaluate and share emerging practice on our local graduate webpages.113
Addressing skills gaps
Our work on skills focuses on encouraging the development of a ‘pipeline’ of graduate talent to meet the needs of employers and the economy. This includes promoting higher education provision in subject areas with identified skills shortages. Over the past couple of years we have been working with government and health bodies to strengthen and diversify the flow of entrants to courses in small and specialist health disciplines such as therapeutic radiography, podiatry, orthoptics, prosthetics and orthotics.114 This year we commissioned research on why relatively few men study nursing, to help increase the numbers who enter the profession.115
During the pandemic, we have been working with the Department for Health and Social Care and Health Education England to develop a comprehensive programme to increase the number of nurses qualifying and entering the NHS. We published FAQs to support student nurses and medics in the early stages of the pandemic, working with relevant health bodies and regulators to ensure students were informed about their choices.116 We have monitored application numbers to healthcare programmes and noted marked increases across all medical professions as a result of the recent health crisis. We have been engaging with the devolved nations about the impact of the pandemic on the future supply of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, alongside providing funding to support a temporary increase to the number of medical students accepted this year.
Throughout the year, we have been working to strengthen and diversify the skills pipeline for artificial intelligence (AI) applications. In June 2019 the government announced a package of support for the development of postgraduate conversion courses in AI and data science technologies, to help address the shortage of AI and data specialists in the UK. These shortages have been estimated to cost businesses more than £2 billion a year.117 The OfS has distributed funding to 29 universities offering AI and data science conversion courses, to help fill this gap. The funding can be used to support specialist teaching and work placements.
Women, disabled people and black people are significantly underrepresented in data science and related fields. In 2018-19, for example, only 18.5 per cent of all students enrolled on a computer science degree were women.118 Conversion courses can help to fix the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ whereby women are less likely to take science A-levels and even less likely to take science undergraduate degrees. A significant part of the funding is supporting scholarships to encourage women and students from other underrepresented groups to apply for these courses.
To help universities and colleges through the next stage of the pandemic, and ensure that students have the best possible chance of gaining highly skilled employment, we will:
- Evaluate the support for local graduates through our funding, working with further education colleges and universities.
- Ensure universities and colleges are closing attainment gaps and securing equitable graduate outcomes.
- Continue to fund courses that provide graduates for industries, such as certain science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, and health and medical subjects.
101 Department for Education, ‘Graduate labour market statistics’, May 2020 (available at https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/graduate-labour-markets).
102 Confederation of British Industry, ‘Economic update: COVID-19’, July 2020 (https://www.cbi.org.uk/articles/economic-update-covid-19/).
103 Sutton Trust, ‘COVID-19 and social mobility impact brief #5: Graduate recruitment and access to the workplace’, July 2020 (available at https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/coronavirus-workplace-access-and-graduate-recruitment/), p4.
104 Prospects, ‘Graduating into a pandemic: The impact on university finalists’, May 2020 (https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/graduating-into-a-pandemic-the-impact-on-university-finalists).
105 Sutton Trust, ‘COVID-19 and social mobility impact brief #3: Apprenticeships’, May 2020 (available at https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/covid-19-impacts-apprenticeships/), p2.
106 Resolution Foundation, ‘Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis’, May 2020 (available at https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/class-of-2020/), p4.
107 Universities UK, ‘How university careers services are supporting graduates through Covid-19’, June 2020 (available at https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/blog/Pages/how-university-careers-services-supporting-graduates-covid19-june-2020.aspx).
108 Higher Education Policy Institute, ‘Somewhere to live: Why British students study away from home – and why it matters’, November 2019 (available at https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/11/14/somewhere-to-live-why-british-students-study-away-from-home-and-why-it-matters/), pp38-39.
109 Universities UK, ‘Gone international: Mobile students and their outcomes’, June 2015 (available at https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/gone-international-mobile-students-and-their-outcomes.aspx), p22.
110 Analysis by the OfS using data from Graduate Outcomes (survey of 2017-18 graduates), the Higher Education Statistics Agency student data collections, and the individualised learner record. The population is restricted to UK-domiciled graduates who were under 21 when they started their course, in employment, whose employment postcode is known. A graduate is treated as working in their home area if their postcode before starting higher education is in the same Travel to Work area as their current employer postcode. More information about Travel to Work Areas is available at https://data.gov.uk/dataset/1b3604bc-8fd3-4b01-a0fd-0f3bf7fcd160/travel-to-work-areas-ttwa-boundaries.
111 Centre for Cities, ’The great British brain drain: Where graduates move and why’, November 2016 (available at https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/great-british-brain-drain-where-graduates-move-and-why/ ), p12.
112 Financial Times, ’ Work from home could help the UK to level up’, 25 June 2020 (https://www.ft.com/content/42cf8cef-4671-4f67-9b62-7cc1acd72ab4).
113 OfS, ‘Improving outcomes for local graduates’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/skills-and-employment/improving-outcomes-for-local-graduates/local-graduates-case-studies/).
114 OfS, ‘Health education funding’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/funding-for-providers/health-education-funding/strategic-interventions-in-health-education-disciplines/).
115 OfS, ‘Male participation in nursing and allied health higher education courses’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/male-participation-in-nursing-and-allied-health-higher-education-courses/).
116 OfS ‘Healthcare students’ (https://officeforstudents.org.uk/for-students/student-guide-to-coronavirus/student-faq/).
117 OfS, ‘Study artificial intelligence and data science as a postgraduate’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/for-students/study-artificial-intelligence-and-data-science-as-a-postgraduate/).
118 Higher Education Statistics Agency, ‘What do HE students study?’ (https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/what-study).