Can short-term mobilities have a key role in enhancing graduate outcomes for UK universities?
As the 2023 Graduate Outcomes data is published in the UK, we explore the role of short-term mobilities in levelling the playing field within UK Higher Education.
The growing importance of graduate outcomes
Although employment outcomes have been measured in UK universities since the early 1990s, they have risen to the top of university strategic agendas in recent years (HEPI 2023). This reflects a growing public and political interest in the “value” of Higher Education for students who are increasingly feeling the financial burden of going to university and the pressures of entering competitive job markets. Students want to be sure that studying for a degree will increase their employability, hence graduate outcomes data has fast become the most important way in which universities can prove the investment will be worth it. In a parallel shift, the Office for Students (the English HE regulator) has turned its focus from increasing participation in HE by under-represented populations to ensuring their success along their entire student journey to employment. This has placed graduate outcomes squarely in university Access and Participation Plans. Following this trend, in the near future, we can expect The Graduate Outcomes Survey to reach beyond the home institution into collaborative provision, with a potentially global impact through transnational education.
Increasing student demand for universities to deliver positive graduate outcomes
From a student perspective, “getting a good job” is considered to be one of the major reasons for going to university in the UK (HEPI 2020). In fact, almost half (47%) of students who report getting good value for money for their university studies relate this to their likelihood of getting a good job (HEPI 2019). Employability is also a key motivating factor for many international students, whose recruitment underpins UK university financial models and whose student experience influences universities’ global reputations (UCAS 2022). According to UUKi (2020), 87% of Higher Education careers professionals rate the demand for Careers and Employability services from international students as “very high” or “fairly high”. Universities are therefore facing increased pressure from both domestic and international students to deliver on their promises of delivering graduate outcomes. For the latter, this is in the context of a highly competitive international recruitment market, aggravated recently by the UK Government ban on UK visas for UK masters students’ dependents.
“Success for all” still out of reach
Graduate Outcomes are one of the three key areas where the Office for Students has introduced minimum thresholds of achievement for home students as part of its B3 conditions for UK universities. This requires a minimum of 60% of students on a university course to go on to professional work, further study or other positive outcomes within 15 months of graduating. In this year’s Graduate Outcomes data for the 2020-21 cohort, more graduates (61%) are in full-time employment than at any time since 2017-18. This is a major achievement for a COVID-impacted cohort. However, analysis in WONKHE (2023) by gender, ethnicity and Index of Multiple Deprivation finds, for example, that “White graduates are more likely to be in full-time paid employment than any other ethnic group”. It also finds “Black graduates are the most likely ethnic group to be in part-time employment” and that, in “England, graduates from a disadvantaged background (IMD quintile 1) are less likely to be in paid employment than their advantaged peers”. It’s clear there’s still some distance to travel to create a level playing field for all students.
Meanwhile, increased student demands on Careers Services has not necessarily met with a corresponding injection of resource to cover increased service delivery. HEPI (2020:41) found that while 45% of career services reported an increase in spending and resources, 55% did not. There’s also a considerable way to go from a student work readiness point of view, with nearly half of home university students feeling unprepared for employment (Prospects 2021) and employers regularly reporting that graduates are not adequately equipped for the future of work (see this year’s Institute of Student Employers Student Development Survey). Multiple recent reports, and the newly relaunched #Weareinternational Charter, also identify the need for international students to be better supported in their employment ambitions.
How short-term mobilities are being used to enhance employability and Graduate Outcomes
Traditional approaches to enhancing employability and Graduate Outcomes for home students have been to focus on work experience (e.g. internships, sandwich courses and part-time jobs) (TASO 2022). Some universities however, notably Coventry and De Montfort, have built reputations on developing global mobility at scale in order to enable students to enhance their global employability. Many others offer some study/work abroad opportunities as a component of their international strategies. However, these initiatives have had limited reach: only 7.8% of the UK-domiciled undergraduates were studying abroad in 2016-17 (UUKi, 2019) and, according to the Widening Participation report, students from less advantaged backgrounds were underrepresented in these numbers. The research evidence from UUKi (2015) is categorical about the benefits of students studying, working or volunteering abroad in enhancing graduate outcomes, pay and academic achievement. Shorter mobilities have been growing in recent years, with short-term options of four weeks or less accounting for one in five of all mobility in 2016-17 (UUKi, 2019). Short-term options overseas or at home are particularly positive for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (UUKi 2021; TASO 2022), helping to narrow Graduate Outcomes differentials while encouraging student participation in longer experiences abroad. Furthermore, they align with university sustainability commitments. It is unsurprising then that the UUKi 2021 has called for universities to create more short-term programmes to enable such students to engage.
Pagoda is working with UK universities to offer short-term mobilities across different student groups, with a particular focus on improving graduate outcomes. These range from care leavers and widening participation students on very short global experience programmes (two weeks) to undergraduate and master’s students on online and in-person internships (from four weeks – in a hybrid format – to eight weeks). Among UUKi’s 2020 survey respondents, 13% of short-term mobility experiences in UK HE were delivered by third-party organisations (UUKi, 2021:18). Most quality global internship providers such as Pagoda have developed strategically aligned programmes to enhance students’ employability and frameworks to track students’ progress against employability KPIs, allowing universities to measure experiential learning ROI. And with an increasing number of UK universities choosing to embed short-term mobilities into the curriculum (84% according to UUKi, 2021:18), this inclusive format supports all students rather than an advantaged few.
Next steps for short-term mobilities
Universities are drawing on global mobility to enhance their students’ employability and Graduate Outcomes, and short-term mobilities are experiencing rapid growth. Obstacles remain, however, to universities seeking to grow the place of the latter within university strategies. Not only is there the all-too-common separation of staff groups, teams and portfolios within universities, which can impede optimal growth, but also the limitations of current funding mechanisms. While Turing will fund international in-person mobility over four weeks duration for home students, some of the particularly valuable shorter-term experiences for WP students sit outside Turing and have led to calls by UUKi and others for a revision to the Scheme. As we observe continuing Graduate Outcomes differentials for under-represented and disadvantaged students, it is time for the government to rethink its Turing criteria and for universities to look hard at the benefits of short-term mobilities for Graduate Outcomes and beyond.
- Defined as experiences abroad which last less than an academic term and typically between one week and two months (https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/sites/default/files/uploads/UUKi%20reports/Short-term-mobility-long-term-impact-report.pdf, p1).
- See for example the UPP International Students Sub-Commission’s report (2022) entitled International Student Futures: developing a world class experience from application to onward career; and the QAA’s(2023) publication Supporting and Enhancing the Experience of International Students in the UK.