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Could technology help under-represented students find post-pandemic employment? 

How can universities better prepare students for the fast-changing employment landscape, helping them feel brighter about the future? A new report from Jisc, Emerge Education and Universities UK shows how technology can help.

A shock to the system

The class of 2020 has faced unprecedented disruption in its final year that nobody could have predicted, with assessments altered and placements cancelled or made virtual (some universities are even considering a virtual year abroad). Countless students supporting their studies with part-time jobs have become unemployed – while others have suddenly found themselves busy keyworkers. Job offers are being cancelled, and the economy has taken a huge hit.

The new report, employability rebooted: democratising the future of work reveals that, in a survey of more than 5,000 final-year students, 29% students have lost their jobs and 26% have lost their internships, while 28% have had their graduate job offers deferred or rescinded.

As Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor, University of Hertfordshire, writes in the report:

“It is rare to be able to call an event cataclysmic without exaggeration. But, in the case of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on students graduating in 2020, it is not hyperbole.”

Employability rebooted: democratising the future of work, shows that under-represented students face significant barriers on the road to employment. However, there are early indications that technology-driven changes are already shaping the post-COVID future of learning and work and reducing some of these barriers.

Of course, all students will feel the aftershocks of COVID-19, but under-represented students are already starting on the back foot. They will need sturdy support to get on the employment ladder. And, as the report mentions, there are more students from under-represented backgrounds in higher education than ever before, but their job outcomes often lag behind their more privileged peers.

Throughout the report, the term ‘underrepresented’ refers to students and graduates who come from groups with low participation rates in higher education, or from backgrounds that have, in the past, been denied equal entry into universities. This could mean BAME students, those from areas of low household income or socioeconomic status, mature students, students with disabilities, care leavers or carers. When it comes to graduate career outcomes, it may also include women. In short, the report has a focus on supporting those who are hardest hit by inequalities accessing higher education or post-university careers.

Greg Wade, policy manager at Universities UK, writes:

“We now face the challenge of economic and social recovery. Universities and their staff and students have a vital role to play. However, one risk of a recession is that those already disadvantaged in the graduate labour market see their prospects worsen, compounding the existing gaps.

“This report shows that, with the advice and support of start-ups and the smart use of technology, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the potential to change the employment journey in a way that defies the traditional impacts of a recession and enables students, universities and employers to bridge the gaps that exist.” 

Learning from the sector

The report features seven case studies from seven universities (Liverpool, Staffordshire, York, Ulster, Hertfordshire, Miami and Falmouth), demonstrating how students have been supported during the pandemic, how the crisis is affecting underrepresented students, and where technology is helping or lacking. These case studies highlight examples of best practice and opportunities for universities, employers or technology start-ups to provide more support.

One such case study is the University of Hertfordshire, where the majority of students are from under-represented backgrounds. As a result, the university has a history of embedding employability initiatives into the curriculum and running several specialist programmes that attract high numbers of BAME students.

Judith Baines, head of the institution’s careers and employment service, writes:

“We’ve always had those kinds of programmes but in 2016 we piloted a mock assessment centre, with the business school, for 450 students.

“It now runs for 3,100 second years. Many of our students don’t have the cultural capital of more privileged students. They don’t necessarily know what assessment processes look like in large companies. For us, it’s been a gamechanger.”

When it comes to using technology to encourage flexibility, Judith is positive:

“The more that [careers] fairs go virtual, the more access our students should have to a wider range of employers which may not have looked to us before. That has to be one good thing to come out of this. Technology, to me, is not a solution. It’s an enabler. It lets us scale-up and bring more opportunities to students, while freeing up time for careers service staff to have one-to-one interventions that are targeted, focused and supportive of students.”

The report also finds that diversity, equality and inclusion are key focus areas for the Toppel Career Center at the University of Miami. This work includes educating, informing and training careers staff on different student population backgrounds, and engaging with those students. Technology has been a huge help. Christian Garcia, associate dean and executive director at the Miami center said:

“The biggest difference between now and 2008 is the technology we have.

 “It has transformed what we do. To be able to provide access to those students who don’t have the network or the social capita of their peers, has been amazing. It’s all about democratising access. The fact that these students now have more job and internship opportunities at their disposal is great.” 

Planning ahead

Ulster University, is also looking at new hybrid models of placement that support civic and economic recovery, based around flexibility and innovation.

“Everyone wants customised, personalised events and opportunities. I think that will be welcomed by all stakeholders,”

writes Shauna McCloy, head of careers and employability services.

“It’s more responsive to both sector recruitment needs and students getting access to timely and relevant opportunities.”

Handshake comes out on top in the report, with organisations saying it helps streamline existing services, providing analytics and allowing students, staff, employers and stakeholders to easily access the information they need. Students can follow companies they like, learn about internships, and apply for jobs.

A post-COVID future

The impressively rapid digital shift of spring/summer 2020 has shown that technology offers the potential to make interventions more accessible, scalable and better informed.

Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire, surmises:

“We believe that, by harnessing the power of technology, the employability ecosystem by 2030 will have become more networked, tailored and accessible, transforming the employability journeys of students from non-traditional backgrounds and democratising the future of work.”