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Reflections on change

In this section, we will explore the historical evolution of graduate employers and labour markets. The number of students participating in higher education has been rising since before the second world war with the number of women undergoing a particularly fast rate of increase. It has been suggested that we have moved from an elite to a mass higher education system, a process sometimes referred to as widening participation or massification. In addition, we have seen changes in graduate occupations and recruitment. For example, the advent of new job titles such as Corporate Fundraiser and Recycling Manager (Purcell, 2007) and a movement from milkround to year-round recruitment (Smith, 2007).

In order to understand these changes in more depth, I would like you to read the first four chapters of AGCAS: Reflections on Change 1967-2007 edited by Tony Butler and Margaret Dane. The first four chapters are quite brief and cover:

  • Higher education: Deer and Mayhew (2007) briefly explore the long-term evolution of higher education and relate this to wider changes occurring in the world economy.
  • Employers and employment in the early days: Caston (2007) takes an informal but informed look at graduate employment from the pre-second world war ‘Winchester’ system to the early 1970s.
  • Graduate employers: Smith (2007) examines changes in graduate jobs and graduate recruitment.
  • Graduate employment and expectations: Purcell (2007) provides an overview of the changing graduate employment scene, placing a particular emphasis on the importance of high quality LMI (labour market intelligence) for careers workers and students alike.

Reflections on Change was produced in order to celebrate 40 years of AGCAS history. It is worth noting that it is published by AGCAS and contains varied chapters written by both practitioners and academics. The tone is by turns reflective and celebratory. You are advised to read chapters 1 to 4 now before proceeding to the Commentary.


Deer and Mayhew (2007)

I have suggested reading this chapter as it provides a brief overview of higher education in general. Deer and Mayhew also make some interesting comments to make about the evolution of the world economy that are relevant to this module. They argue that developed economies can only compete at the high value end of the market because poorer countries will tend to compete on price and cost. This creates a need for high specification goods or services that are readily customized, highly differentiated and flexible. This in turn creates a demand for a highly skilled and capable workforce to deliver these goods and services, and a consequent rationale for higher education expansion and change. See also Leitch (2006) and Brown & Hesketh (2004a) in the reading list. This position is not without its critics (as the authors are quick to indicate). I would like you to consider the ‘high skills vision’ in the light of your own experience.

Reflection question

  • What does your analysis of destinations surveys and employer liaison activities suggest in terms of the ‘high skills vision’?

Caston (2007)

It is interesting to note that Tony Caston was formerly employed by ICI and invited to give an employer’s perspective on the early days of graduate recruitment. His style is idiosyncratic and contrasts with the more measured approaches taken by other contributors to the publication. The chapter gives something of the flavour of working in the elite graduate recruitment system in the early second half of the twentieth century. You may detect a certain fondness for the certainties of the Winchester system, ‘It was a system which worked’ (p.23), and a suspicion that it may still be operating albeit in a modified form today.

Smith (2007)

Smith makes a number of important points. He reminds us that there has always been a strong vocational (in the sense of occupational) focus to higher education. The ancient universities always had a strong focus on subjects related to careers in the Church, law and medicine. He also detects four changes:

  • In graduate recruitment, a move from recruitment to individual posts, to graduate schemes and, currently to talent pool management.
  • The changing nature of graduate recruitment staff: from lengthy tenure with a focus on experience, to job hopping and a culture of relevance.
  • A move from milkround recruitment based on the spring term to internet-supported year-round recruitment.
  • The changing nature of jobs: the jobs that individuals do at the peak of working life do not exist at that start of that working life.

We will examine the changing graduate labour market in more depth in a later section.

Purcell (2007)

Purcell suggests that an ‘outside in’ (p.43) culture has encouraged HEIs to see employers as ‘clients’ and students as ‘customers and investors’. There has been a focus on labour market intelligence (LMI). This, Purcell suggests, provides the key to addressing the greatest challenge facing higher education career services: meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse HE student population. It is interesting to note that employer complaints over the employability of graduates, and academic complaints about the erosion of academic standards, are not new to higher education. An exchange between the CBI and the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1970 provides evidence of this. Purcell argues that there are differences between the destinations of graduates in 1966-67 and 2006. There is a greater propensity for today’s graduates to be in ‘unequivocally non-graduate jobs’ (p.45). There is also greater congruence between specialised vocational degrees studied in higher education, such as marketing or buying, and graduate job vacancies. It is suggested that the decreasing relative importance of the prestigious blue-chip graduate vacancies has been caused by the capture of professions such as physiotherapy or journalism by higher education; and the growing importance of highly specialised labour markets related to specific occupations or geographical regions. Overall, Purcell detects a growing convergence in the skills needed across graduate jobs such as teachers and engineers, coupled with a growing divergence in job titles such as Welfare Rights Officer and Business Information Analyst.

Reflection questions

  • Can you think of any other occupations or professions that have been ‘captured’ by higher education i.e. occupations that were once non-graduate?
  • Perhaps you can think of other new job titles encountered in your work with employers, the destinations survey or students?