Universities are failing to prepare students for the social economy

Institutions are not developing the key skills employers look for, says David Reed

November 1, 2015
Volunteer, volunteering

The news that Ernst & Young will remove the degree classification from their entry criteria is a direct challenge to the role of universities at a time when the graduate earnings premium is narrowing.

Ernst & Young’s decision is not an outlier. UK economists and businesses alike are vocal about how digital technologies, global markets and changing consumer behaviours are impacting the transferable value of a degree for students in the job market. When the Open University was founded in the 1960s, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 firm was 75 years; it is now less than 15 and is declining.

In a more agile world, UK employers are increasingly hiring for values-based leadership traits – citing empathy, emotional intelligence and resilience as key assets in new recruits.

This transformation of the labour market is matched by a shift in the career expectations of students. More than ever, graduates want jobs that have a social purpose, reporting this as a bigger motivation when looking for a job than the starting salary. Research by Demos confirms that the next generation of university applicants are more engaged in social issues than any before them, and are more driven to take action on causes that they care about during their education.

It is no coincidence therefore to see the big campus recruiters, including Ernst & Young, but also Barclays and Deloitte, setting up social enterprise arms, or to find that the biggest graduate recruiter in the UK is now a charity, Teach First. In a world in which global giants such as Coca Cola, Virgin and Unilever are committing to social purpose alongside profit, the workforce of the social economy is growing faster than the for-profit sector.

Alongside the big firms, the charity sector is creating new graduate pathways to cater for students primarily motivated by wanting to make a difference – see Charityworks, Worthwhile, Year Here, City Year, Frontline and more.

We have reached a tipping point: the brightest and most ambitious students now increasingly want to work for a social business or charity, and the most savvy graduate employers are now recruiting for social leadership.

This should be a golden opportunity for universities. One reason why a full-time degree continues to be a good career choice is that it offers young people time to find out what they’re passionate about. But too often the drive to improve the “student experience” has led vice-chancellors down a blind alley; just look at talk of Olympic swimming pools and backfired re-branding exercises at my university, Warwick.

Instead of vanity projects, universities should heed the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), who advocate that student volunteering and social enterprise offer an ideal training ground for the great leadership qualities that hiring firms no longer feel come guaranteed with a degree.

Some universities are making big strides on social enterprise in their research and business links. A Universities UK report in 2012 highlighted cases of best practice at the universities of Plymouth, Northampton, Sheffield, and other institutions, some of which were also building the crucial link to student volunteering.

But research shows that the higher education sector as a whole is performing poorly in the latter area, lagging behind institutions abroad. An authoritative study by Volunteering England in 2011 concluded that student volunteering at universities was in a “fragile state”, and that institutions saw these activities as “peripheral”. This might be why just 15 per cent of university students in the UK volunteer, compared with up to 31 per cent in the US.

There are many examples to highlight chronic underinvestment in this area, even by top universities. Take the University of Oxford. In 2009, the Institute for Volunteering Research found that “neither the University nor Union make much provision to support student volunteering”. At the time, a group of students had set up their own charity to fill the gap – Oxford Hub – which by 2014 had set up a social enterprise in the city centre and won a Queen’s Award for voluntary service.

This year however, Oxford decided to slash core funding to the service.

Universities that invest in student social action see surprising results in graduate employability. The universities of Nottingham and Manchester, who have invested heavily in student volunteering and social enterprise, came first and second in a recent ranking of universities to be targeted by top UK recruiters.

As well as finding out what Nottingham and Manchester are doing right, university leaders should look at Student Hubs, a national charity that has replicated the successful Oxford Hub model in 10 universities in England. Alongside establishing a student-run hub for social action at each university, the charity connects students into a national network of conferences, training and job opportunities. Last year, 49 per cent of students who came across the charity changed their career plans as a result.

 Student concerns about employability have increased since fees went up, but they are also more socially minded - volunteering at uni ticks both boxes. It’s time for vice-chancellors to step up.

 David Reed is Director of Generation Change.

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Reader's comments (1)

A refreshing perspective on the value that higher education can add to society but does the NSS (and will the TEF) recognise engagement in social enterprise and volunteering in the same way it recognises employability?

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