This report includes interviews with careers officers, contributions from student Garrett Withington and Head of Public Affairs for BDB Pitmans Stuart Thomson, as well as a ranking of the top ten careers services in the UK with profiles of their approaches. The goal is to examine the way careers guidance works in universities today, find out what’s working, what’s not, and how to improve on the current model.
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, I 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 over 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-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 also 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, providing 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 too responsive. Nevertheless, below we have compiled profiles of the most prominent careers services in the UK, based on Finito research and interviews with members of staff.
Sometimes considered the top careers centre in the UK, run by Director Jenny Blakesley. In 2020, Cambridge careers centre made the switch from their 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. The careers service 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 they have had their hiccups. 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, they did provide a genuine apology at the end of the day alongside an encouraging message.
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 to the switch to Handshake. Blakesley studied at the University of Bath, where she received a BSc in Pharmacology.
Oxford Careers Service is housed in an appropriately aged and ornate building located next to Wycliffe Hall. They offer 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. They have extensive advice 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.
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 should be easily locatable.
A talk with Director Karen Barnard
Karen Barnard has been the Director of the UCL careers service for 17 years, following two years as head of careers at St. Mary’s University. Her experience allows her to help students with motivation, interview skills, and finding the right fit for them after university. She focuses on work experience, which has become difficult to manage during the pandemic.
“We’ve been promoting as much virtual work experience and that sort of thing and we can, which is as good as you can get in that situation, but it’s still really difficult for the students,” Karen said.
Without in-office work experience, students miss out on the ‘try before you buy’ aspect of finding a career. This could lead to students not finding the right job to fit their skills and interests, but Karen says that many graduates are concerned about finding any job in the wake of Covid-19.
“There are the concerns that a student will have, not least of which is living though a global pandemic, which is one thing, but also the recession, their future and what it looks like, and obviously the backlog of graduates we’ll see from 2020 and 2021. Their confidence in the job market is low, coupled with the fact that the work experience stuff has not been there either.”
To allow students to gain work experience during the pandemic, Karen and her team have begun to focus on work-related learning which takes place in the classroom.
“One thing we’re doing to raise the standard is work-related learning. Not internships or learning in the workplace, but work-related learning. For example, we have job taster sessions and scenario activities where employers will bring real-life problems onto campus, and students solve them in groups. They’re working on real-life problems under the pressure of time and they get a feel for it,” Karen said, “You can do that reasonably en masse. Rather than one person having an internship, we can have a class of 30-50 in small groups all taking part. I think that’s a way to do things at scale, particularly when there are fewer external experiences available.”
We have established that work experience is becoming increasingly valuable in terms of graduate employment, which brings us back to our previous question; where does the value of a degree actually come from? Karen believes it’s not about any one part, but the experience as a whole.
“The value of a degree in today’s marketplace is about the whole package of being a university student. The research skills and study skills you get from having done a degree are definitely important, but I think the whole package is equally important. Co-curricular offerings from universities include work experience and placements, but they’re also about contact with employers, clubs and societies, volunteering work, ambassadorial roles for the university… that whole package is valuable,” Karen said, “We know that employers look at experience from students in the broadest sense, rather than just saying ‘great, you’ve got a 2.1”
In closing, Karen warned students on the job search to really consider the roles they apply for, rather than simply ‘ticking boxes’.
“The approach that we encourage students to take is ‘don’t do a job because you can do it, do a job because you want to do it’. They should think about themselves first – what their primary motivators are, what their values are, then rank all of those things,” Karen said, “Have that list, look at the job description, and then see if it applies to you.”
The ICL Careers Service provides all you would expect from a top-level organisation – they have 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. They also have 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. They could also use to place a larger emphasis on employability during fresher’s week.
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.
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. They have 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. They do 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.
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. They could use to emphasise the careers service more during fresher’s week, but they do have a wide variety of events and a careers week.
A talk with Director Stuart Johnson
Stuart Johnson, Director of the Bristol Careers Service
Stuart Johnson has led the careers team at Bristol since 2014. We asked him how his team helps students work towards employment after graduation.
“I don’t think there’s any kind of magic bullet for this. There are a few tricks you can do to try and turn things around quickly, but that doesn’t mean it would be sustainable…” Stuart said, “We need to work with students’ ambitions and dreams – it’s not about crowbarring students into opportunities to make the numbers look better.”
Motivation to succeed is always a hurtle which must be overcome in university, but Stuart has seen the way that Covid-19 has compounded the issue.
“It’s clearly hit the younger generation disproportionately,” Stuart said, “They’re facing a tough job market and whether students have stayed in their university accommodation or returned to their families, they’re living in less-than-ideal situations. A lot of them haven’t had the vaccine yet, they’re faced with bad news about the labour market, and some of them can just give up.”
Stuart believes that motivation and opportunity both work hand-in-hand to help students get on track. He says that a major part of his work is “about raising ambitions and helping (students) see the breadth of opportunities available to them”. Many students come to university motivated, with a clear plan for their futures. We asked Stuart how he helps students who aren’t quite there yet.
“One of the things we pride ourselves in is the support we offer to students who for whatever reason aren’t in that boat. That could be because they come from a disadvantaged background, they could lack the social capital, or they could have just been slow off the mark to think of these things – so as a general principle we try to engage students very early in their university careers,” Stuart said.
According to Stuart, motivating and preparing students for the world of work is only half of the job.
“At least just as important is creating the pull from the other side with employers who are interested in our students. That’s partly the big-name employers, which is why we’re so targeted by the Times’ Top 100, but importantly also with local small to medium sized enterprises,” Stuart said, “We play an important role in the civic infrastructure of the city and growing the local economy.”
The job market is complex and intimidating, especially now, so Stuart is trying to teach students to understand it and remain flexible in their ambitions.
“We help students understand where the jobs are, because if they think that there aren’t any, that’s where they can quickly give up hope,” Stuart said, “If they can understand that there are jobs, but they might need to look in a different place or sector than they were originally thinking, then it’s much better to do that than to wait around for the ‘perfect opportunity’.”
Stuart understands the issues which students are currently facing, and he’s worked in the careers service for seven and a half years. In closing, we asked him to give some general advice to a student or fresh graduate reading this now.
“Use your networks if you have them and focus your applications,” Stuart said, “I’m always nervous of people saying they’ve applied for 100 jobs and not gotten them – it’s usually better to apply for five really well.”
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.
The LSE careers service offers advice tailored to their focus as a university. They offer advice on the usual things, such as CVs, interviews, and further study, but they also provide 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 they do offer many text-based resources. They offer 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.
Leeds Careers Centre is located near the refectory and student union. Their staff can offer same-day advice as well as mock interviews, application support, and help choosing a career for those who are still exploring. Their colourful website is neatly laid out with highlighted sections including appointment bookings, disability support, and judgement-free advice for changing or leaving a course. They could use to focus more on early engagement with the careers service, and they use a basic booking system rather than a 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.
The Edinburgh Careers Service is clear and easy to navigate. They also have solid engagement on social media, which is updated frequently. Their 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. Their office is located in the main library. They do not 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. They could use to expand their video resources, and while they do 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”.
Methodology and Findings:
The Finito Scores for university careers centres were determined through a number of factors, including location on campus, technology, social media engagement, visibility of staff, early engagement with the service, events schedules, and available resources. 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 one based on our own research, we were able to compile these ratings into an overall score for each university.
Through our conversations with careers officers we have found that there are members of staff at these universities who are 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.
While each university had its own strong and weak points, we did find some overarching problems which could be areas for improvement. Extensive early engagement with the careers service did happen at some universities, but it was certainly not the norm. Many of the universities are proud of the one-to-one counselling aspect of their programmes, but 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 first or second year, and it is not a university’s job to force people through the door. However, it is 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, and that approach should be universal.
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.