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Students and the labour market (part 2)

In this section, we will look at two studies exploring the contrasting experience of students drawn from two post-1992 universities.

  • Buckham (1998)
  • Redmond (2006)

Linda Buckham explored how 24 arts undergraduates approached the process of making career decisions. The method included focus groups, diaries and individual interviews. Three inter-related themes were identified in the study:

  • Negative futurity: students who anticipated being unwanted in the labour market.
  • Graduate employment game: students with a strong sense of a changing graduate labour market that operated as a game of snakes and ladders.
  • Indeterminate status passage: students who perceive a lack of control, uncertainty and fear surrounding transition into the labour market.

Paul Redmond undertook a three year ethnographic study into the career thinking of 30 widening participation students. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus was used to argue that such students all too frequently become, “‘outcasts on the inside’: formally accepted by the university without ever acquiring, still less embodying the traditional social and cultural advantages bestowed by HE” (Redmond 2006: 1). For instance, it was suggested that graduates from Oxford and Cambridge have a 1 in 8 chance of success when competing for fast-track jobs, whereas graduates from post-1992 universities have a 1 in 235 chance.

Activity and reflection questions

Now read Perhaps We’re Thinking There Isn’t a Career Out There For Us by Linda Buckham and Outcasts on the Inside by Paul Redmond and consider the following.

  • Can the student groups identified be related to your students whether post-1992 institution or not?
  • What implications are there for the perception of careers services by students?
  • What implications are there for the role and function of career services?
  • Finally, think about career development theories. How can career development theories be related to these ideas?

Buckham notes that none of her respondents were considering any of the major graduate trainee schemes, instead they looked for local employment as, for instance, a flight steward or a language school teacher (p.424). They tended to have purely linear and vertical conceptions of career progression, and sometimes questioned whether one could really have a career and whether graduate jobs really existed (pp.426-7). It is also suggested that within the student group ‘there tends to be an underlying sense of cynicism about the language of job advertisements and that the attainable world of work is intrinsically uninteresting and mundane’ (p.427). Interestingly, some students felt that if they did not use their degree in a directly related way then it would be ‘a waste’ (p.430).

Redmond suggests that widening participation students may find it difficult to relate to several aspects of HE career service activity. For instance, one student says that ‘you want to play yourself down’ in order to fit in with the home environment (p.9). In addition, all the respondents used the word ‘job’ in preference to ‘career’, suggesting that they held a rather limited, middle class, hierarchical, employment-based view of career (p.15). It is also suggested that the students lent a disproportionate weight to the advice of lecturers and tutors (p.16). Consequently, the students operated within rather narrow horizons for action.

There are implications here for careers service marketing techniques such as posters, publicity and layout of career centres. There are also implications for the career educational work undertaken through guidance, employer liaison, information and discrete career education activities such as modules or group works. These learning activities will enable students to broaden their understanding of: career concepts, graduate labour market research, and the availability of advice and career research resources.

In both studies, there is no shortage of student theorising about career, however these very student theories tend to limit horizons for action in self-limiting or thwarting ways. Engagement with alternative and more nuanced career development theories may result in rejuvenated and robust conceptions of career and labour markets. In this way, suggests Buckham, we can help students by assisting them in ‘building a conceptual bridge towards new ways of thinking’ in order to address a ‘culture of negativity’ (p.431).