Many individuals, organisations and governments have rightly vowed to listen, support and learn further about long-standing, structural race inequality.

The striking inequalities that were shown in HESA’s Graduate Outcomes Survey demonstrates how entrenched these issues are and how much change is needed.

It’s not, however, just BAME graduates that do not fare as well as their more advantaged, white, male counterparts. On average women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also less likely to access well-paid graduate jobs than others.

Stark inequalities

Black graduates are less likely to be in full-time employment than their white classmates (53 per cent versus 62 per cent). They are also more likely to be unemployed (5 per cent vs 3 per cent). Overall, male graduates earned around 10 per cent more than their female peers. Students from neighbourhoods with low HE participation rates were less likely to be in full-time employment (56 per cent versus 58 per cent).

Universities and employers need to reflect openly on the role they still play individually and collectively in mirroring and perpetuating inequalities. The inequalities facing black graduates, female graduates and graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t just appear around an executive or board table. They are evident from the very start of a graduate’s career.

Although direct comparison with DLHE or LEO isn’t possible, that doesn’t remove the fact that Graduate Outcomes identifies trends that are similar to those we have seen before. A recent report by the Social Mobility Commission criticised the Government’s progress on social mobility as “disappointing”, noting that there had been no or insufficient progress against over three quarters of its proposals. Universities and employers must take this opportunity to reflect honestly on their own progress too.

Beyond access

Universities have come a long way in widening access to the transformative experience of higher education. They now need to apply the same ambition and drive to narrow the outcomes gap where progress appears to have been much slower. It’s clear that simply participating in higher education doesn’t necessarily translate into success and progression to a graduate-level job for everyone.

To date, many universities and businesses have carefully considered the causes of the outcomes gap and developed recommendations. A range of analyses reach similar conclusions: differences in degree attainment and social capital, conscious and unconscious bias, unequal access to internships, work experience and study abroad opportunities, self-selecting out of opportunities, and employer focus on selective universities.

Their analyses also consistently draw a similar conclusion. Collaboration between education providers and businesses is a fundamental part of the solution.

Working together

In 2016 a major university-led Social Mobility Advisory Group provided analysis and recommendations, building on academic, practitioner and employer insight. The Group made clear that “sustained change can only be achieved through collaboration and partnership”, calling for a “greater coordination of information and advice across schools, universities and employers”. A subsequent 2019 discussion paper by UUK makes an important contribution to understanding the outcomes gap, demonstrating a commitment from universities to take the outcome gap seriously, but also showing how far we still have to go. It shines a light on the questions but does not provide the answers. We’re still some way off actions and solutions.

Like universities, many businesses have also reflected on the role they play. A 2019 Deloitte report with clear recommendations for businesses and education providers is just a single example, identifying the importance of contextualising academic achievements, blind recruitment and employer outreach activity. As a large recruiter, it’s right that Deloitte is leading the way. However, it’s undeniable that smaller employers, who employ a significant proportion of graduates, face particular challenges that need to be considered. It’s much harder for smaller employers to connect with universities and engage proactively. Coordination between employers and universities is critical to make sure that initiatives are complementary.

If collaboration is a fundamental part of the solution, policymakers need to be more ambitious about how collaboration can be encouraged, enabled and delivered in practice. Not just with large corporates, but also with SMEs.

No single answer

At a local level, some employers and universities do collaborate in positive ways that should help narrow the outcomes gap. From targeted joint initiatives between careers services and employers to improve career guidance, advice and outreach. To shared employability and skills courses and events. To exchanging information and good practice. However, the level of collaboration is far from uniform and the level of employer involvement will vary by geography, institution and subject in ways that we don’t yet understand. This means that not all students and employers are benefiting.

And whilst all these initiatives are helpful, they only scratch the surface of the problem. The government and policy makers need to drive national and regional initiatives to enable and coordinate the type of collaboration needed, underpinned by clear information and evidence.

After years of exploring how to eliminate equality gaps, the journey ahead looks clearer. However, without doubt the path is bumpy. Covid-19 presents a unique set of challenges to graduates and employers, which will almost certainly have a disproportionate impact on more disadvantaged graduates. Reviewing current and future Graduate Outcomes survey results and taking them seriously will be critical to understanding the outcomes gap we face.

In these difficult times, universities and businesses have big questions to ask of themselves and of each other. There will be no single answer. And no single driver of a solution.