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5 takeaways from the AGCAS Annual Conference 2019

September 2019

AGCAS policy and research manager, Gabi Binnie, picks out the key highlights from the organisation's recent Annual Conference in Manchester

Earlier this month, professionals from across the higher education careers and employability sector came together in Manchester for the AGCAS Annual Conference, to share best practice, tackle common challenges and work collaboratively to enhance the outcomes of our students and graduates.

1. Class ceilings

The theme of this years' conference was Aspiring and Achieving: Impacting Social Mobility through Innovation. A growing body of research shows that simply attending university is no longer the stairway to success that it was once perceived to be.

Universities have put considerable effort into supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university - indeed, increasing numbers of students from low-income families are entering higher education - but as we heard from Chris Millward, director for fair access at the Office for Students, graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to progress to highly skilled employment and typically earn less on graduation.

Our members are now front and centre of the national conversation about how we can support our students and graduates to 'get on', not just 'get in'.

Just because an opportunity is available to all students, does not make it an equal opportunity

2. Perspectives and perceptions

During the conference, we heard from voices across the sector about their experiences of trying to reduce the outcome gap between students from high and low socioeconomic groups.

Counterintuitively, hiring under-represented talent to well-known organisations like the BBC and ITV is profoundly difficult, as discovered by Ken Lee (previous HR director for BBC North and current executive HR director at UCLan) and Trish Brady (head of HR, ITV). Both organisations found themselves battling ingrained perceptions like 'ITV/the BBC don’t hire people like me' and 'I didn't study a degree in media' just to get people from diverse backgrounds to apply.

Dr Iwi Ugiagbe-Green, senior teaching fellow at Leeds University Business School, gave us an insight into the barriers that graduates from under-represented groups face in recruitment processes. Having lower economic capital (access to financial support), social capital (access to professional networks and restricted geographical mobility) and cultural capital (tacit knowledge of professional norms and recruitment processes) than their more affluent peers influences their access to opportunities and the potential for social mobility. As Dr Ugiagbe-Green said, 'Just because an opportunity is available to all students, does not make it an equal opportunity'.

Andrew Bargery, university and schools engagement leader, explained how PwC has introduced game-based assessment and Career Focus days to level the playing field for student and graduate applicants, whatever their level of capital.

3. Framing social mobility in context

The conference also looked at two of AGCAS's other strategic themes - regionalisation and academic alignment - through a social mobility lens.

Embedded careers provision is the most effective strategy for developing the employability of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but engaging with academics to embed employability is rarely straightforward.

Dr Kate Daubney, head of careers and employability at Kings College London, took us on a tour of the myths that careers and employability professionals often need to dispel when working with academics to embed employability, such as 'teaching employability isn't my job!' and 'employability is not academically rigorous!', with practical advice about how we can highlight the employability content already present in curricula.

Different aspects of academic alignment, from design thinking to employer input in curriculum design, were explored in workshops by our members at the conference, as well as in the June 2019 edition of Phoenix, the AGCAS journal.

Supporting place-based graduate labour markets has been a strategic priority for AGCAS since 2017. There are wide regional variations in employment opportunities, with urban areas and regions like the South East acting as 'escalators' to success, meaning that social mobility can often be dependent on 'going where the jobs are'. 1

As well as an always-welcome update from Charlie Ball (HECSU) on graduate migration patterns, we heard from a variety of AGCAS member services on what they are doing to support graduates who seek work close to home. Among these were updates from recipients of the OfS Challenge Competition funding, including the University of Bradford, who are working with multiple organisations to tackle the underemployment of BAME graduates in Bradford, specifically within five of the most deprived postcodes in the UK.

It is only by working together that we can be bold, radical and ambitious enough to deliver on the promise of higher education as an engine for social mobility

4. Champagne supernova

As well as being a hub of knowledge-sharing, the conference is also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our members through the AGCAS Awards for Excellence. The awards recognise services and individuals who have delivered innovative, impactful and sector-leading work across multiple categories. This year was also the first time we recognised an individual for their significant contribution.

5. A call to action

Our Annual Conference demonstrated how universities, employers and other organisations can work together to improve outcomes for all our students. In this spirit, the AGCAS Social Mobility Working Party has partnered with the Institute of Student Employers to create a Social Mobility Toolkit to allow careers professionals and graduate recruiters to learn from one another how to support the success of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It is only by working together that we can be bold, radical and ambitious enough to deliver on the promise of higher education as an engine for social mobility.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

Notes

  1. Social Class Inequalities in Graduates’ Labour Market Outcomes: The Role of Spatial Job Opportunities, Adriana Duta and Cristina Iannelli, 2018.

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