Harry Anderson, Policy Manager, Universities UK

The class of 2020 are graduating at a time unlike any we have known. Although at this stage the true scale of the economic fallout from covid-19 is still unclear, those leaving university this summer are entering a new and uncertain job market.

Universities having been rising to the challenge as best they can yet there are unique challenges facing this year’s graduates – and those who finished their courses in recent years and who are now progressing their early careers. As anyone familiar with previous economic downturns will know, although graduates are far from the worst group affected, many of those leaving university will find conditions tough and could end up in lower-paying occupations than they would have otherwise expected. As recent research by the Institute for Student Employers (ISE) has shown, graduate recruitment is already down 12% compared to last year, with SMEs in particular reducing the number of graduates they intend on recruiting. The class of 2020 will likely face fewer opportunities and increased competition.

Across the country, institutions have been working hard to support their students and graduates. Almost overnight, a variety of careers services moved online – including careers cafes, recruitment fairs, work placements and dedicated support for disadvantaged graduates. Yet the scale of the challenge means further support from government is needed.

That is why last week Universities UK (UUK) published a new report on ‘Supporting Graduates in a Covid-19 Economy’ looking at what more could be done to support the class of 2020. Drawing on input and expertise from across the higher education sector, business, as well as careers services, the report recommends several proposals which look to ensure graduates can be at the heart of the UK’s social and economic recovery from covid-19. 

A nation-wide scheme of recovery internships

Amongst the recommendations is the proposal for government funding to help establish a one-year UK-wide scheme of recovery internships.

This funding would be targeted to provide opportunities for graduates working with businesses most in need of support and would involve close co-ordination with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in England and the equivalent groups in the devolved nations. There are a range of fantastic initiatives already operating across the country – such as Sheffield’s RISE programme or the new Cardiff Capital Region Graduate Scheme – but with government support, there is the opportunity to create a scalable national programme. What’s more, paid opportunities will be vital to ensure we do not reverse the hard-won progress the sector has begun to make on social mobility.

When faced with the previous downturn – the 2008 financial crisis – the UK government recognised the need to support young people by launching the Graduate Talent Pool and Future Jobs Fund. If the early indications about the covid-19 economic fallout are to be believed, a national scheme of recovery internships could go along way to supporting graduates in working with business to help boost growth.

Support for further study

Although no two recessions are the same, economic downturns tend to lead to an increase in people undertaking study – particularly at postgraduate level. Yet further support could help ensure a wider group feel able to access masters degrees.

The UK currently suffers from a clear socioeconomic divide when it comes to progression onto a masters. As the Resolution Foundation have demonstrated, those who go onto study for a masters at a young age are overwhelmingly from a higher socioeconomic background. There is no quick fix to address this problem – and the government should commit to exploring a range of options – but in the limited time available to support those looking to undertake postgraduate study in the Autumn, our report suggests adopting a similar approach to that which has been introduced in the United States during the covid-19 pandemic. This would involve setting interest rates at 0% for the duration of a postgraduate course, with interest only beginning to accrue after completion of study.

After all, encouraging more students to take up postgraduate study is not just beneficial for graduates wanting to avoid a challenging economic environment, but it also helps provide the UK with the future skills and workforce needed to thrive in a changing economy.

More modular and bitesize learning opportunities

The final area our report looks at is stimulating more flexible learning opportunities. Although employment opportunities are more limited due to the economic effects of the pandemic, recent graduates will need to ensure their skills remain current and prepare themselves for an increasingly competitive labour market.

That is why government should explore financial support for those wanting to study shorter courses, be it at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Current rules in England mean that an individual must commit to taking on at least 25% of the work of a full-time student as well as committing to undertake a full qualification. Such restrictions remove the essential flexibility needed by many employers and deny individuals the opportunity to keep their skills up to date.

Prior to the pandemic, firms were already highlighting the need for more upskilling and retraining to deal with a changing world of work – and it is likely this trend will only accelerate as businesses adapt to a new way of working. By introducing more module and bitesize learning opportunities, the government could help ensure we have the skills needed for an ever-changing world of work.

Final thoughts

The impact of covid-19 will be severe and the class of 2020 will face an uncertain future. In the short-term universities are rising to the challenge to help support students during this difficult time, but co-ordinated action is needed to support graduates after university.

As our economy begins to emerge from this crisis, the skills, knowledge, and capabilities developed through a university education will be more important than ever. The class of 2020 could leave a powerful legacy in helping to rebuild our country.

Let’s give them the chance to do so.

Harry Anderson, Policy Manager, Universities UK

Harry Anderson is a Policy Manager at Universities UK (UUK), the mission group for the UK’s higher education sector. He covers the immigration brief and engages regularly with officials from across the Home Office, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and the Department for Education to ensure UK universities have access to the people and skills needed to succeed. Prior to joining UUK, he covered higher and further education policy for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

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