Still riding the crest of every wave

September 20, 2002

Like the rest of Britain, careers agency the Central Services Unit has moved on in 30 years. Mike Hill reports

When the Central Services Unit came into being on August 1 1972, created by the then Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, it employed three people in an office on Manchester University's campus, and its first annual turnover was £,050. Thirty years later, the world of higher education and graduate employment, and thus the CSU, has changed in ways unimaginable in 1972.

Back in the 1970s, a typical job vacancy was advertised thus: "Abel & ImreyI Patent agents require one chemist, two physicists or engineers especially electricalI Honours degree graduates onlyI Salary £1,250."

Now, the job spec is far more specific, and the average starting salary with a blue-chip company is approaching £18,000. In those pre-equal opportunities days, ads often blatantly discriminated on salaries, with many jobs being reserved for male graduates.

Jobs such as Abel & Imrey's were presented via the "Clearing House List", which carried the latest graduate vacancies and was distributed monthly to a handful of universities to pass on to students. Now, vacancies are advertised weekly in Prospects Today and are not just printed and distributed via Careers Services, but emailed to 130,000 recipients every fortnight. Vacancies can also be highlighted via text messages and appear on digital TV. They are also housed at Prospects.ac.uk, the official online careers information and guidance site.

As the CSU enters its fourth decade, the graduate recruitment market is facing its fourth downturn, and yet the CSU has an £8 million turnover, 97 per cent from vacancy advertising sales to employers and postgraduate recruiters. Moreover, our regular surveys of graduates'

destinations six months after leaving university shows graduate unemployment levelling at 5.5 per cent, down from 9.2 per cent five years ago and a solid base from which to ride out the fall.

The CSU's trading company covenants all its surplus (£3 million in the past 18-month period) to its parent charity (the Higher Education Careers Services Unit) for redistribution into higher education, either directly through the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (Agcas) and individual or groups of Careers Services; or indirectly via research and labour market information. Over the years, a number of other publications have been, and are still being, added to the Prospects series. These include specific titles aimed at final-year students, at those considering postgraduate study and, most recently, at graduates interested in being self-employed.

In the past three decades, it is not just the job market that has changed. The CSU has seen more degree subjects become available and, recently, a marked shift away from historically buoyant graduate employment sectors such as engineering and sciences, which have been usurped by "new" industries such as information technology and media. Boom subjects of the past five years include psychology (in 2001, graduate numbers were up 36 per cent), IT (up 26 per cent) and business and management studies (up 16 per cent).

A firm endorsement of the need for employability information emerged from the recent Harris review of careers services, which called for careers guidance and information to be brought closer to the heart of higher education, for example, through embedding it in the university curriculum.

It is debatable whether commercial enterprise can ever forge a totally comfortable fit with academia, but the CSU's charitable status and its historical association with Careers Services and Agcas aim to build bridges in this respect. The CSU recently acquired the National Centre for Work Experience to create a central work-experience resource for higher education students, graduates and graduate employers. This acquisition, which will extend the CSU's expertise in work experience, follows a growing number of reports that suggest that many graduate recruiters are as concerned with transferable skills and work experience as they are with degree discipline.

Mike Hill is chief executive of the Careers Service Unit.

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