“One of the solutions we advocate is for universities to make it easier for SMEs in the local area to come into the university environment to work with and recruit graduates.” 

The NUS Head Office is based just outside King’s Cross in Central London, where one fifth of all graduate jobs are based.  A short distance away is the Old Street roundabout, which has been dubbed ‘silicon roundabout’ because of the flowering of new tech industry in that area, representing the entrepreneurial revolution going on in the tech sector and, just a little further away is the Borough of Tower Hamlets where the average salary for people who work is £64,000 yet almost two in five house-holds live on less than £15,000 a year, which is around the average starting salary for graduates. 

The need for entrepreneurs, the regional variation in job availability, the shocking practice of unpaid internships, salary expectations on graduation and the gulf between graduates and non-graduates are just some of the problems that we need to identify solutions to ensuring that the focus on employability doesn’t detract from other equally important debates.

At NUS, we argue that the employability debate, whilst important, is about more than just getting skills and knowing how to write a good CV, but for universities and businesses it’s about thinking more broadly to address the challenges of a modern jobs economy.  If we neglect to tackle problems of job quality, pay disparity, skill shortages and expectation gaps, we simply aren’t preparing students well enough to succeed beyond further and higher education.

Last year, we carried out a major piece of research with the New Economics Foundation which we found that the UK labour market is increasingly characterised by higher-wage-work requiring advanced qualifications at the top end of the distribution of earnings, and low-wage service-sector jobs at the bottom of the earnings distribution, while jobs in the middle have been in decline. In short there has been a polarisation of employment. 

The knock-on effect of this has is clear, as we expect to see more study leavers working in entry-level jobs which demand lower skills pushing other people without skills out of the labour market altogether.  The statistics bear this out. In 2001 26.7 per cent of graduates were in lower skilled jobs – that has risen to 35.9 per cent in 2012. 

This new hour-glassed shaped labour market is evident in both pay and occupation data and we believe that it’s important for students to fully understand the market they are entering, but moreover, we have a responsibility to shape the jobs market.

One of the solutions we advocate is for universities to make it easier for SMEs in the local area to come into the university environment to work with and recruit graduates.  Smaller businesses will be able to innovate quicker and the opportunities afforded to graduates will be greater, meeting the expectations of study-leavers to be able to take on more responsibility at an earlier age.  By expanding the number of graduate jobs available we’ll see fewer young people taking low-skilled jobs, forcing others out of employment altogether and through businesses and universities working together at a local level, we can drive entrepreneurship and employment locally – rather than deferring to a London based recovery. 

By recruiting paid interns, SMEs will be able to experience working with students and figure out how they might use graduates within the organisation.  When the international labour organisation (ILO) predict that global youth unemployment will remain stubbornly around 75 million, finding as many opportunities to create networks between SMEs, students, graduates and business should be top of any vice-chancellor’s to-do list.

Raechel Mattey is Vice-President of NUS and can be contacted via her lead policy adviser: lewis.coakley@nus.org.uk

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