In the context of a cost-of-living crisis and the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent months have seen rapid and significant changes in the labour market. It is therefore more important now than ever to improve our understanding of how the higher education sector can support current and future graduates’ careers. We should pay particularly close attention to the employment outcomes of disadvantaged students, and seek to narrow existing equality gaps.
Most higher education providers are well-aware of these challenges and work to tackle them using various types of interventions. However, selecting the most impactful actions is not straightforward when there is still a huge amount that we don’t know about how to best support students’ employment and employability prospects.
In response to this need, TASO has published a report on employment and employability equality gaps with the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) and the Education Policy Institute (EPI), in which we observe the gaps, what the sector is currently doing to tackle and what evidence of impact exists.
What gaps can we observe?
Firstly, we conducted descriptive data analysis using Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data on employment outcomes and published Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) statistics. The number revealed striking gaps in graduate earnings that emerge immediately after graduation and increase further over time. One year after graduation, there is an £11,300 gap between the lower and upper quartile of graduate earnings. Ten years after graduating, this gap is £24,100. Interestingly, the choice of course, both in terms of subject and institution attended, are partially associated with these differences. Significant and durable earning gaps are also visible between students from different ethnic groups and UK regions.
In the absence of counterfactuals and of information on part type work or employment, the analysis still provides evidence that some student groups have systematically lower employment outcomes than their peers, a reality that should be acknowledged and tackled.
What does the evidence say about what works?
Looking at the current evidence base, it is worth noting that a lot is missing, particularly when looking at interventions targeted specifically towards disadvantaged groups. Furthermore, little research in this area provides causal estimates of impact. We have gathered evidence on various categories of interventions.
Unsurprisingly, the most well-evidenced intervention is work experience. It appears that undertaking work experiences is highly beneficial for students’ employment outcomes, including disadvantaged groups. This represents a promising avenue for tackling equality gaps, although little is known on how to ensure access to the students who would benefit the most. There is also evidence to support the effectiveness of information, advice and guidance (IAG).
Less evidenced interventions include technology-based support and teaching employability skills. A sector consultation carried out for this report similarly concluded that work experience, employability skills workshops and IAG are the most likely interventions to be targeted at disadvantaged groups amongst providers, with internships and work experience felt to be particularly impactful interventions.
When we consulted the sector to gather their current practices and opinions on careers and employability programmes, we found that providers generally offer universal provision as opposed to targeted programming due to concerns about ensuring equal opportunities, avoiding stigma and the low uptake for targeted programmes. They usually evaluate their offer using student feedback, employment outcome data, and, to a lesser extent, case studies. Importantly, they struggle to collect data after students graduate, making it difficult to determine whether concrete employment outcomes can be associated with participation in particular programmes.
In order for things to change, the sector needs to approach careers and employability provision more strategically and to rigorously evaluate interventions with an increased focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged groups. For interventions that appear to be effective at tackling equality gaps, providers should think about improving uptake among target groups. Newer and less researched practices should also be trialed and tested, as they might represent promising avenues in an ever-changing context.
In the coming months, TASO will be supporting the sector to produce further high-quality research on this crucial topic as part of its research theme on employment and employability, in the hope of informing policy and practice and creating lasting change.
The full report can be downloaded here.
The summary report can be downloaded here.