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Bob Gilworth on careers services, Graduate Outcomes and the OfS

March 2018

The AGCAS president-elect discusses the challenges facing careers services, imminent changes to graduate destinations data, and the launch of a new university regulatory body

You are director of the University of London Careers Group and president-elect of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS). How did you get there?

I have been in HE careers for quite a long time. I was a careers adviser at the University of Humberside (now the University of Lincoln), head of service at Huddersfield and then director at Leeds for almost 13 years.

Leeds was a big, comprehensive careers service. What could come next after that? I wanted to operate at the most senior level while staying in an area that really interested me, so director of the University of London Careers Group was the ideal job. We are, as far as we know, the largest careers service in the world.

AGCAS is an organisation that has always been good for me. For the last few years, I've been the director of research on the board and so when the presidency came around, I put myself forward and that's what I'll do for two years from August.

I think at the end of my presidency, if more people in positions of power and influence have a good idea of what a modern university careers service does, as opposed to what they think it does, then that would be a step forward.

Institutions are able to think about and plan what they do with guidance from genuine experts

Does being such a large careers service have its challenges?

It does. At the University of London Careers Group we have around 150,000 students across our member colleges in the UK alone. Then there are those students in other countries studying degrees that are accredited by our members.

The transnational issue is an area we are only now seriously addressing. For example, there are around 12,000 students in Singapore who attend campus and take their classes just like any student would here and they're graduating with a University of London degree.

However, the University of London isn't the only university that this Singapore institution is awarding degrees on behalf of. One of the challenges for us is making sure that any support we're providing is reaching the University of London students and not necessarily everybody.

Has the role of careers services become more prominent over the last few years?

On average, careers services have a much higher profile, but as with many things in higher education, there is always a degree of polarisation.

One of the definite trends is that if you look at the role of the leader of a careers service in higher education now, it's increasingly common that they are required to take a dual role.

They are both the person who manages the central operation, whatever that is, and the institution's chief adviser on anything and everything to do with careers and employability.

The good thing about this is it means institutions are able to think about and plan what they do with guidance from genuine experts who really know what they're doing.

Careers fairs are far from dead - there have never been more SME employers attending them

How can AGCAS work with employers to improve careers services?

I suppose that our key partner organisation is the Institute of Student Employers (ISE). There are two AGCAS members on the ISE board. They also have a research group that I've been on for quite a while. We have a shared interest in data and evidence.

While the ISE is an important organisation and one I personally have a lot of time for, it can't be the whole story because it can only represent a subset of the organisations that our graduates join. When you look at the AGCAS labour market survey that's done every year, you can see how much activity actually goes into engaging with local regional small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and not-for-profits.

What's interesting is the ways different-sized businesses interact with graduates. Bigger employers use diverse methods of engagement, whereas SMEs tend to use traditional methods.

For example, ISE research shows that careers fair attendance from large recruiters is in decline. But careers fairs are far from dead - there have never been more SME employers attending them.

Careers services spend a lot of time working with SMEs, not least because probably three-quarters of careers services have responsibility for placement programmes now.

However, while working with SMEs is a good thing, it takes hard work. From an initial warm contact with an SME to setting up an internship, my own experience is that the attrition rate will be 3:1.

How important is the relationship between the Office for Students (OfS) and AGCAS?

The relationship between AGCAS and the OfS will be crucial. I think it's a very good thing that OfS director Chris Millward's first public engagement was delivering the keynote speech at the AGCAS Heads of Service Conference in Liverpool in January.

Fair access and widening participation are obviously key components of the OfS's remit and these are issues that careers services and AGCAS are engaging with.

It's important to remember, however, that widening participation is not just about getting in, it's about getting on.

That's where careers services can play such an important role with the support they provide in areas such as career planning and skills development.

What are your opinions of the Graduate Outcomes survey?

It could be a very good thing though there is understandable concern about hitting the response rate. The graduate voice questions will provide a very different type of success indicator. We will know not just what graduates are doing, but also whether they actually want to be doing it.

We need league tables to reflect the graduate voice responses, too. It would be sad if they focus only on graduate earnings. Salary isn't the only measure of success.

Graduate Outcomes also has implications for career planning. Previously, the focus was on graduate-level jobs shortly after graduation. However, with this switch to 15 months they need to help their graduates have a clear idea of what they want to do. Otherwise, they may find a good job, stick it out for a year and then quit as it wasn't right for them, turning a 6-month 'DLHE success' into a 15-month 'Graduate Outcomes failure.'

There is also a big question mark over whether institutions will be able to keep in touch with their graduates. Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) required a response rate of 80% after six months whereas Graduate Outcomes still requires 70% after 15 months. Nine months later for only a 10% drop is a big ask - especially with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on the horizon.

From a careers service point of view, the best we can hope for is that graduates have a career plan that they can execute within 15 months of leaving university.

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