By Patrick Crowder
If you ask almost any student why they go to university, they’ll tell you: “To get a job after I graduate” or “To help my career”. It amounts to a longstanding contract between the university system and its clientele – parents and students. But after the 2007-8 financial crisis struck, and still more after the advent of the pandemic, there have been doubts as to whether the young are really getting a good deal out of the university system.
So are universities doing enough to help students achieve their goals? Over the summer, Finito World took a special look at university careers services across the UK to see what works, what doesn’t, and what can be done to fix it.
The first issue is the value of a degree as a whole. Given the sheer numbers of people now achieving graduate and postgraduate degrees, employers are looking outside of academic excellence for attributes which make a particular applicant stand out. This can be an internship or work placement, independent work completed outside of university, the imaginative force a candidate’s application – and any number of other factors depending on an applicant’s chosen field.
Euan Blair, son of the former UK prime minister Tony Blair, is an entrepreneur who runs an education start-up called Multiverse. The company, which made headlines this year on account of its valuation at £147 million, helps young people find apprenticeships as an alternative to university altogether. He believes that the culture of universities must change to focus more on employment after graduation.
“There are a lot of people in the university system who fervently believe that they should not be equipping people for jobs and that it should be learning for learning’s sake and people should do what they enjoy to learn,” Blair tells Finito World. “And that’s all well and good – until it isn’t. Actually people have to make trade-offs, and that’s the case particularly when universities have allowed there to be this assumption that if you go and get a degree, you’ll be able to get a job.”
Not everyone comes to university with a clear idea of their career ahead. It’s certainly true that students will sometimes attend university with a “learning for learning’s sake” mindset, particularly in the arts and humanities. This mindset is noble in many ways, but it has its drawbacks. For instance, students may find that the degree they’ve completed out of a love for the subject matter may not leave any clear path to the world of work.
Antonia Clark is a careers consultant at City University of London with over 25 years of experience. She often sees the struggles students face when trying to figure a way to make a living from their passions.
“Many of them are studying subjects that they’re interested in, but they just can’t relate it to a career,” Clark explains. “Then they get to the point where they postpone [finding a career], because everything they think they see is banking or finance, and they don’t want it.”
In her role, Clark has seen up close the clash between academia and employability described by Blair. “There’s this huge divide between people like me and academics – some of whom say ‘we don’t want to do that stuff, we focus on the research’. If students want careers advice we employ a careers service or a placement team and that’s where they should go,” she continues. “But actually it’s wrong to think young people are that motivated. Many of them feel daunted by the task and an overwhelming sense of competition perpetuated by the media. I think it’s about the guarantee of these skills being built in to the degree.”
One of the ways that university careers services try to help students is to get them thinking about employment early in their university careers – typically during the first year. However, careers services typically have low engagement with the student population. “Only a small proportion of students use the careers service, and that’s pretty much the case nationally. For us (at City) it’s about 11 per cent or 12 per cent of the student body,” Clark concedes.
Even the act of finding people to speak with for this feature proved Antonia’s point – the general attitudes of the students contacted were those of apathy, lack of confidence, and ignorance of their universities’ careers services. To combat this lack of engagement, some universities, including City, are introducing mandatory employment-focused modules.
“This coming year, all City degrees will have some sort of professional experience built into them. First year business students all take part in an employability module. Science, maths, and engineering have one in year one as well, which is just a small element of their course, but it’s there,” Clark explains. “We’re piloting a sociology course which will work with a local charity as well. It’s that stuff which really focuses a student in terms of competing at the end and giving them valuable experience.”
If the value of a degree in terms of employability comes from apprenticeships and work experience, students may wonder what the point of the academic side of university is in the first place. Aside from the fact that many jobs require a university qualification, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that graduates were less likely to be unemployed during the pandemic.
In a study focused on graduate outcomes during the pandemic, the ONS found that graduate unemployment “has been consistently lower than the total” unemployment rate. This doesn’t mean that graduates haven’t been hard hit by the pandemic – in fact, the same study shows that unemployment rates for recent graduates were much higher than usual, reaching a worrying 12 per cent in the third quarter of 2020.
Even so, it’s still far better to be a graduate than not. The ONS chalks up graduates’ lower rates of unemployment compared to other groups to their higher level of skills as well as their higher levels of “occupational and geographic mobility”. However, just because a graduate is employed, they are not necessarily in a professional career appropriate to their skill level, and – worryingly again – the skill-to-work mismatch turns out to be higher amongst graduates.
The problems with the current system are clear. A greater focus on apprenticeships while attending university is just one of many possible solutions. Robert Halfon MP, who chairs the Education Select Committee, has frequently spoken and written about the ways that universities need to evolve in order to survive as an effective, sensible path to employment.
“If I was in government, I’d be incentivising every company in the country to work with universities and give grants to universities conditional on whether they have a significant number of degree apprenticeships. Every university should do it. It depresses me that Oxford has closed its doors to any kind of apprenticeship at all,” Halfon tells us.
While there is movement towards greater integration between universities and the working world, traditional institutions have often not joined in that shift.
“We look at elite universities the wrong way in our country,” Halfon continues. “An elite university should have a lot of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, brilliant graduate outcomes, embedded work experience and training in the curriculum – and, most of all, significant degree apprenticeships.”
Euan Blair adds that he is wary of giving universities advice, but that there are clearly issues with the current system: “I think that there will always be and should always be a place for purely academic learning in a university environment,” he says. “The challenge is, it sort of became this monopoly on early careers in a really negative way. That’s made universities complacent and it’s created this lack of equal access to opportunity – particularly around careers.”
University is an expensive undertaking, both in terms of time and money, yet it is now almost universally expected of Britain’s middle class young people. Attending university for the sake of pure academia is considered acceptable, even honourable, provided the funds are there – but students who attend university with the idea that they will get a job more easily after graduation may be in for a shock.
The great difficulty in writing about the universities is that the stories of apathy in the sector meet the problem that apathy tends not to be particularly responsive. Nevertheless, below we have compiled profiles of the most prominent careers services in the UK, based on extensive research and interviews with members of staff. Insodoing we have come up with our inaugural Finito World rankings of the top universities.
In order to do this, we took criteria including technological offering, presence of noteworthy guest speakers, visibility on campus, social media content, size of team, navigability of website, and engagement levels of students to produce our exclusive Top Ten of the best careers services in the country. We also factored in a university’s place on the QS Graduate Employability Rankings of 2020, which focused on outcomes for students after leaving university. By examining these factors and assigning ratings for each categories based on our own research, we were able to produce overall scores for each university.
So what are the findings? Firstly, while we saw much that was promising among universities, the student engagement is almost always too low and the services in question insufficiently hands-on. There remains much to be done to make sure that students get a fair shake in a highly competitive global economy.
Some areas for improvement turned up time and again. Extensive early engagement with the careers service did happen at some universities, but it was certainly not the norm. Many of the universities are rightly proud of the one-to-one counselling aspect of their programmes, but unfortunately they are only seeing a small percentage of students on that basis. Lack of engagement with the careers service can also stem from the fact that students may not be thinking about their future careers during their first or second year. It should be a university’s job to ensure that students are aware of the services offered, and to remind them that it is best to begin thinking about careers early in their university lives. Some universities did achieve this through engagement during fresher’s week, careers fairs, and careers-based modules, but by no means all and that approach should be universal. In addition, if engagement among the Russell Group universities isn’t high then this raises serious questions for other universities, where student employability outcomes are far lower – and in some cases worryingly so.
Secondly, it is clear that there is a considerable gap in the national fabric where a profound mentoring service ought to be. It is clear that this need to be enacted by the private sector, as this magazine’s parent company has shown. However, it may be that the private sector needs to partner with our existing university institutions at a far deeper level, and Finito World will be exploring these ideas in subsequent issues. Put simply, many of the universities lacked a personal touch in their careers guidance and would benefit from taking a more one-to-one approach. Careers counselling should take the form of mentorship, not one-off meetings. By keeping the same counsellor/mentor, a student can build a relationship with them, allowing the student to open up about their true dreams and aspirations. We know there is a lot of anxiety around asking for help, so it is much better for a student to speak with someone they already know and trust than to walk into an office for the first time not knowing what to expect.
However, there were many silver linings too, and these were to be found when we were able to conduct in-depth conversations with careers officers. We have tended to find members of staff at these universities to be both qualified and motivated to help their students. The apathy we have referenced surrounding careers centres has not been displayed by any of the university staff profiled in this feature. In some cases, they have also been disappointed in lack of engagement with their services, especially when the services they offer would be beneficial to students if they took advantage of them.
Finito Score: 93/100
Sometimes considered the top careers centre in the UK, this offering is run by Director Jenny Blakesley. In 2020, Cambridge careers centre made the switch from its old system to Handshake – an app which allows students to network with employers, contact the careers centre and schedule meetings, check the status of their applications, and see new job listings tailored to their profiles – it has achieved positive reviews on the App Store. The careers service also provides advice and support for current students at all levels of study as well as alumni. Alumni benefit from the Alumni Careers Connect program, which connects graduates with mentors who have successfully transitioned to the world of work. This is all very good, but there have been occasional bumps in the road in terms of delivery. In 2019, the careers centre sent out an email entitled, “Disappointing results? Our top advice,” which many students found patronising and alarming. To their credit, the service subsequently issued an apology.
Director Jenny Blakesley
When she took over the Director of Careers role at Cambridge in 2019, Jenny Blakesley already had 15 years’ experience in the field. She led the careers services at the London School of Economics and King’s College London after working in careers at Queen Mary, the University of London, and more. She was instrumental in the switch to Handshake. Blakesley studied at the University of Bath, where she received a BSc in Pharmacology.
Finito Score: 91/100
The Oxford Careers Service is housed in an appropriately aged and ornate building located next to Wycliffe Hall. The service offers online resources which help with CVs, networking, and interviews, as well as traditional in-person guidance. The careers service publishes “The Oxford Guide to Careers” annually, which contains industry information, tips from employers, and help with planning for the future. Students and alumni can find job listings, book meetings, and see upcoming careers events through the online CareerConnect portal. Their website is good, but visually uninteresting. Extensive advice is available for students on the website, however it is presented mainly as text with little video content. Despite this, they are still providing a good service with few issues.
Director Jonathan Black
Jonathan Black has led the careers service at Oxford for 13 years. He studied and pursued a career in engineering before moving into finance. Now, he helps students by creating new careers programmes, delivering advice seminars, and coaching students individually. He wrote the book “Where am I going and can I have a map?” in 2017, which Emma Jacobs of the Financial Times described as a “wise, calming, and pragmatic” careers guide.
University College London
Finito Score: 85/100
UCL Careers offers an employment newsletter, an annual careers guide, alumni mentoring, and tailored one-on-one advice. UCL students can book three different types of appointment with the careers centre, depending on their needs. Meetings for applications advice, interview coaching, and short, general guidance are available with UCL careers consultants. Their website could be easier to navigate, and video content is not prominently displayed. The careers service would benefit from an overhaul of their website, because they do offer good services and information which is easily locatable.
Imperial College London
Finito Score: 83/100
The ICL Careers Service provides all you would expect from a top-level organisation: alumni support, one-on-one counselling, networking events, and online careers resources. What makes them stand out is their focus on students’ wellbeing. The front page of the careers service website features frequently asked questions about the careers service and the job market during Covid-19, as well as a section dedicated to diversity and inclusion. The service also has a section called “You said… we did”, which explains how the university is addressing issues with the service which are flagged up by students. ICL could be higher on the list if their careers office was more centrally located. A larger emphasis on employability during fresher’s week would also improve its score.
Director Jason Yarrow
Jason Yarrow has worked in careers advice for 17 years, becoming Director of the Careers Service at ICL in 2017. He holds degrees in Careers Guidance, Management, and an MA in Geography and European Studies.
University of Manchester
Finito Score: 78/100
The Manchester Careers Service is designed to help students not only find a job but decide what job will suit them best. One of the first things you see on their website is a downloadable guide with the name “I don’t know what I want to do”. This guide assures students that being unsure about their future is perfectly fine and offers strategies to find a career which will fit a student’s passions and abilities. The service has a webchat feature for quick advice, and traditional meetings can be booked as well. One issue is the lack of transparency in regards to staff. While there are contact details available for the careers office, it is not clear who you will be talking to. This issue is such that we were unable to profile the Director of the careers service, as the information is not available. The service does emphasise work experience early in their students’ careers, with internship opportunities for first and second years displayed prominently on the front page. The location of the careers office is central and easily accessible, and the resources on the website look sound. This careers service would be much higher on the list if they made their staff more available for contact, and had more video resources on the website.
Finito Score: 78/100
Over 60 members of staff work at the Bristol University Careers Service, under Director Stuart Johnston. An online portal offers links to events, CV help, job listings, and a live chat if students need help. The website is clean but unimaginative, and can be tiring to navigate when looking for specific information. Their Tyndall Avenue office is near the main campus, sporting colourful signage right next to the student’s union lettings building. The careers service should be more prominent during fresher’s week, but the university does have a wide variety of events and a careers week.
University of Nottingham
Finito Score: 77/100
The Nottingham Careers Service office is located near the central student service centre, offering one-on-one guidance and resources to its students. The careers service is currently operating online, and the website prominently features a section called “Graduating in 2021”. This link takes students to a list of statements which may apply to them, such as “I’m worried about the job market” or “I’d like to gain work experience”, alongside relevant advice for each situation. They also offer Magpie, which is an online learning engine specifically tailored to each student based on level, career aspirations, and learning style. We have been unable to find evidence that students engage with the careers service during fresher’s week, but they do hold a careers fair and a wide variety of events. The website could also be slightly easier to navigate, though it holds a significant amount of information in video format.
Senior Careers Advisor Joanne Workman
Joanne Workman has worked in careers at Nottingham since 2019 and was promoted to Senior Careers Advisor in March 2021. She holds an MA in Career Development from Nottingham Trent University, which she achieved in 2019.
London School of Economics
Finito Score: 75/100
The LSE careers service offers advice tailored to their focus as a university. The service offers advice on the usual things, such as CVs, interviews, and further study, but it also provides specific job market information and help navigating the psychometric assessments which are common in corporate job applications. You can find their staff, but it is not as easy as some other unis with a prominent “meet the staff” page. Their video resources are also not very well developed, but the service does offer many text-based resources. The department also offers career planning advice broken down for each year of study, outlining the events, internships, and networking opportunities available throughout a student’s time at LSE.
Director Elizabeth Darlington
Elizabeth Darlington has worked in the careers office at LSE since 2012, taking the role of director in 2019. Prior to joining the team, she gained experience as a careers advisor at both Oxford and Cambridge, as well as working in graduate recruitment at Barclay’s and L’Oreal. She achieved Honours in her BA History degree at Manchester University.
University of Leeds
Finito Score: 75/100
Leeds Careers Centre is located near the refectory and student union. Its staff can offer same-day advice as well as mock interviews, application support, and help choosing a career for those who are still exploring. Its colourful website is neatly laid out with highlighted sections including appointment bookings, disability support, and judgement-free advice for changing or leaving a course. Its score would be improved if it had a more tangible focus on early engagement with the careers service, and if it were to graduate from a basic booking system to a more dedicated app or web service.
Mary Cawley has been Work Placement Project Officer at Leeds for three years, focusing on securing internship opportunities for her students. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Theology from the University of Birmingham, and has past experience in both admissions and recruitment.
University of Edinburgh
Finito Score: 68/100
The Edinburgh Careers Service is clear and easy to navigate. The department also has solid engagement on social media, which is updated frequently. The service’s website features an “ask a student” live chat function, as well as quick links to resources available on the front page for students in a hurry. The office is located in the main library. However it doesn’t have an app or program for the careers service – at least not one that can be seen by the public – but their fairly simple appointment booking portal should suffice. The department arguably needs to expand its video resources, and while they the service does have a careers week and engagement during fresher’s week, more contact with students would help their ranking.
Director Shelagh Green
Shelagh Green has been Director of Careers and Employability at Edinburgh for 12 years, and she has worked in careers at Edinburgh since 2000. She is a higher education careers professional who states that her role is to “enable students to make successful transitions to life beyond University”.