Tom Lowe is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth, where his research includes student engagement in the development of education, embedding employability into the curriculum, and supporting student belonging. Tom is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Chair of the RAISE Network – an international network of over 1,000 members researching student engagement. Prior to Portsmouth, Tom was the Head of Student Engagement and Employability at the University of Winchester where he led the University’s student development, internationalisation and extra-curricular opportunities, staffing, and strategies relating to fostering student success. Tom has recently published a book titled “Advancing Student Engagement in Higher Education: Reflection, Critique and Challenge” with Routledge Education and has worked as an advisor across more than 30 universities internationally.
UK Higher Education, particularly in England, has seen steady growth in the proportion of 18-year-olds progressing into a university-level study, where in 2019, 50% of 18 year olds in England enrolled, partially meeting Tony Blair’s 1997 aspiration. As the main indicator of the massification of higher education (being student numbers), the number of young people attending university is tipping into the majority, leading to increasing numbers of degree-level qualified graduates in the job market. This high number of graduates in particular programs such as Psychology, Business Management, and Criminology, has led employers to ask for greater graduate granularity, and graduating students themselves are looking for opportunities to attain experiences and qualifications to ‘stand out amongst the crowd’. It is unsurprising as with the massification of USA Higher Education in the 1970s-90s, graduates are increasingly turning to postgraduate taught further study (namely Masters Degrees) to achieve this in the UK.
Universities too have increasingly encouraged postgraduate study as a means to support graduate employability measures, where postgraduate study in the UK is viewed as a ‘positive’ graduate outcome in both the previous Destination of Leavers of Higher Education Survey and the current Graduate Outcomes Survey. Many universities have supported this further with graduate tuition fee discounts for staying at their undergraduate university of study. During the worst economic time of COVID-19 for job vacancies (summer 2020), students too saw the postgraduate study as a safe option further increasing numbers and a culture of postgraduate study. Masters programs recruit from both current undergraduate student populations from the same university, and, from beyond where students may be returning to their home city (prior to the undergraduate study) and possibly ‘trading up’ to more prestigious or higher-ranking universities, to further improve their career prospects. These factors discussed above have seen considerable growth in Master’s student numbers, alongside ever-increasing international students at both postgraduate taught and other levels of study.
Considerations for supporting postgraduate taught students for Careers Advisors & Employability Services
So, what should our employability services consider when looking to increase a growing population of postgraduate-taught students? Well, similar to undergraduate study in the UK, the societal promise of postgraduate study is to increase graduate prospects, whether the program of study will actually provide it or not. In the UK, postgraduate students are included in the Graduate Outcomes Survey assessment, and in England, the B3 measures of regulation by the Office for Students which assess university ‘success’. Therefore, although initially, prioritising postgraduate study as a means to improve graduate employability metrics for an often-majority student body of undergraduates, this can in fact delay a potentially poor employability metric if the postgraduate study is not meant for careers and employability prospects when a university is a view holistically through schemes such as B3. It is therefore crucial that this expansion does not sit without enhancement. Asking students to take on further student loan debt, which in the UK is in fact a second student loan, on top of the undergraduate loan (that being two post-tax deductions once earning over the threshold) is considerable. Therefore, there is a need for Careers Advisors and Employability Services to enhance graduate support and prospects of postgraduate taught students equally as undergraduate students. Undergraduate students’ and postgraduate students’ journeys differ. It is increasingly important for universities to deliberately support this growing student group to improve student and graduate success.
Considerations for supporting the employability of postgraduate taught students:
Embedding Employability in to the Curriculum – A recommendation for all provisions to include discussions about career options following study, authentic experiences with employers, and at least a formative assessment relating to job applications are required across all disciplines. The not to be an understated solution for many of the graduate employability problems faced in UK Higher Education is taking the difficult task of overtly embedding employability activities into taught sessions, mandatory modules, and summative assessments will ensure high student engagement with employability activities. Secondly, engaging in discussions around graduate career paths with alumni panels, what to do with your new skills and experiences from a postgraduate degree, and including employers during class time will also support future thinking and awareness of graduate options.
Discussing Careers from Day 1 – The attraction of postgraduate taught study in the UK is often one-year Masters’s programs (as opposed to often two years internationally). This creates a very short amount of time to engage students with only 12 months of time on campus. Engaging in employability discussions before distraction from assessment and research is critical from the start of these short programs. One-year master’s students will experience a higher level of assessment so building careers as a key course theme, which is spoken about as early as open day and induction, will create the expectation for the remainder of the course and engage students early before taking on such tasks as 15,000-word dissertations.
Orientation with the Careers Advisors & Employability Service – Although many postgraduate students may have been recruited directly from the same institution, many others will be completely new to the institution. The efforts of universities often prioritise undergraduate students (who are often greater in number), yet there is merit to take the same introductory practice as with undergraduate students to outline the work of our services is critical to be open to supporting later in the student journey.
Focusing on the summer and autumn of the academic year – Many postgraduate taught students will study from mid-September until late September the following year, therefore their job application periods will differ from undergraduate students, where likely application times will start from August (11 months in) and span into the autumn following. Services are often focused on undergraduate students’ induction activities during September (focusing on activities such as part-time jobs), where in fact, postgraduate-taught students may welcome campaigns and activities prioritised by services earlier in the calendar year.
Engaging students in the development of provision – Taking time to listen to students’ feedback, discuss their motivations for postgraduate study, and understand their career readiness, will enable services can better support and understand students’ needs. This can lead to co-design solutions through working with students as partners and researching the different student demographics and student enrolment services available to inform practice and initiatives.