How to balance the civic cost of graduate retention

Universities can help bridge the gap between graduates who stay put and their local communities through targeted outreach programmes for students and staff, says Christopher Birchall

December 16, 2018
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Town and gown tensions are almost as old as UK higher education itself. Just over 800 years ago, it was growing discontent among Oxford townsfolk towards the university that led to ugly scenes that forced scholars to leave and form the University of Cambridge in 1209.

Even in those towns and cities that have warmly welcomed large numbers of undergraduates, there is an impact on the local population that needs to be considered.

It stems from those graduates who choose to stay put after university in their adopted home towns. This might be because of the friendships and networks that they built up at university or because of stronger career prospects in these regions. Graduate retention of this type has long been lauded as a positive outcome for these areas; it provides a supply of highly skilled workers to employers, adds a youthful energy to civic life and fills local skills gaps. It is not, however, without its potential problems.

In areas of high graduate migration, the sheer numbers of degree holders can result in many undertaking non-graduate level work, often for a variety of reasons. That may be problematic for non-graduates, who might feel squeezed out of job opportunities.

The disadvantage that many local non-graduate residents face in the labour market can be further compounded because their graduate rivals will have access to bespoke services aimed at supporting them to find work.

Universities are increasingly measured on their students’ employment outcomes, which feeds into both the teaching excellence framework and university league tables, thereby incentivising them to place alumni in work. It means that graduates have access to well-resourced careers teams that offer a service far superior to anything found at the local JobCentre+.

In addition, funding cuts to further education colleges have reduced their ability to provide employment services to school-leavers, which may cause them to be envious of graduates in what could be perceived as an uneven playing field.

To manage this potential imbalance, it is increasingly important that universities and local authorities work together to mitigate the impact that settling students have on the existing population. Otherwise, there is a danger that graduates, and the institutions that produce them, will be seen as barriers to local residents’ ability to find work, forge careers and realise their aspirations.

To combat any potential ill feeling, universities should consider utilising their greatest resources: their students and staff. Giving students structured opportunities to work in the local community and to act as ambassadors for their institutions, universities can prevent graduates being seen in a negative light by the communities that they may choose to join.

This will not happen if universities rely solely on students’ sense of altruism or civic responsibility: community service needs to be institutionally recognised. Many institutions are doing just this – developing awards that bring together additional modules that students can complete to gain a further award on their degree transcript, covering volunteering, time spent advising local businesses, teaching English to refugees and migrants and much more. Such programmes allow students to gain crucial soft skills while helping those in the local community to achieve their own aspirations.

Similar schemes could also be introduced for university staff. Staff can already request time off to perform certain civic duties, such as acting as local school governors, although the list of eligible activities should be broadened to encourage more cooperation with local authorities. Joint university-council working groups could cover a wide range of areas, allowing local authorities and university departments to share resources and expertise in key service areas.

There are now 14 million graduates in the UK – a figure that has risen by 2 million in just four years. As graduate numbers grow, it is vital to consider how they will integrate into some of our most vulnerable regions. Universities are resource-rich institutions and have access to substantial networks – they must keep looking for new ways to show how important they are for their local communities and that they take their civic responsibilities seriously.

Christopher Birchall has worked at a range of institutions in the further education and higher education sectors, holding roles in both widening participation and employability education.

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