As someone who left university in the economic crash of 2008, the challenges today’s graduates face in navigating a labour market hit by a global pandemic feel somewhat close to home. I am lucky that my home was London-based and I had the buffer of a middle-class family but the experience of applying for graduate jobs against hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants sticks with me.

That’s why I feel galvanised to improve the situation for current students and graduates who face the combined uncertainty of studying during COVID and their future beyond university. Last month the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) published our Sector Consultation report which sets out our commitment to generate evidence of effective practice in two new areas: Employment and Employability; Mental Health and Disability. The expansion of our work into these areas is timely: whilst disparities in graduate employment outcomes and rising mental illness among students were significant challenges before the pandemic, these issues have been heightened over the past 18 months.

Although we are yet to see the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the labour market outcomes of graduates, ONS data shows that the unemployment rate for recent graduates peaked at the end of 2020 at 12%, double the average unemployment rate seen for this group over the previous three years (6.3%). It is hard to see how increased competition for graduate roles will not widen existing inequalities – as those graduating in 2021 compete against those graduating the year before.

OfS analysis from 2015/16 reveals that fewer graduates from economically disadvantaged backgrounds were in highly skilled employment or further study 6 months after graduating (a difference of 4 percentage points between students in POLAR quintiles 1 and 5). Employment gaps also exist for black and disabled students (5 and 3 percentage points respectively). By launching our Employment and Employability theme, TASO aims to promote effective practices to help these students access the same employment opportunities as their peers.

Student mental health has also been hard hit by the pandemic, with increased numbers of students experiencing anxiety, depression and burnout since Autumn 2020. A recent ONS survey reveals that 50% of students feel that their mental health has worsened over this period and almost a third (29%) have accessed some form of support. IPPR research indicates that mental illness was rising in the student population well in advance of the pandemic, however ongoing uncertainty around teaching practices, less contact with peers, and labour market challenges, place increased pressure on today’s cohort.

As our consultation shows, higher education providers are deeply aware of these challenges. Many universities have comprehensive strategies and services in place to support disabled students and those experiencing mental-health problems, as well as career services to support students from underrepresented backgrounds. However, it is vital that providers funnel their resources into options that deliver the best outcomes. Rigorous evaluation is crucial to this, ideally that which can demonstrate the causal benefits of a service to students’ lives.

TASO was set up in 2019, with a mission to eliminate equality gaps in higher education by helping the sector learn and scale effective practices. We will kick off work under our two new themes at the start of the new academic year. Initially gathering and reviewing evidence about the efficacy of current practices, then supporting providers to assess the impact of the most promising interventions. These themes represent big challenges for the sector – and society – to get right, but if we do we will tap into a generation of talented and capable people who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks. I hope our contribution in this space will help to improve the lives of current and future students, both whilst they are at university and after they leave.