Achieving career aspirations as the economy improves

careers&employability_bbk_400x1000This post was contributed by Mohsin Aboobaker, Birkbeck’s Careers and Employability Manager.


A lot has been written in the last week about the increasing number of graduate opportunities for 2015 with bullish predictions of an increase as large as 18% higher than in 2014. This is good news and alludes to an improving economy. The financial services sector is like to be at the head of the opportunities offered to graduates with figures indicating that recruitment will be up by 42% through the summer.

There has been much debate over the last few months as to whether, while the number of opportunities increases, the right calibre of graduates is available. Often, forward thinking businesses and organisations work quickly to ‘snap-up’ the right profiles but similarly, the Association of Graduate Recruiters also identified that 23% of employers did not manage to fill their vacancies in 2013 and this trend continued in to 2014 which of course may mean more of the same for the coming year.

What has become increasingly clear over a period of 18-24 months is that businesses are no longer just interested in academic backgrounds and much is made of the right ‘personality fit’. More value has to be added and this is explored through student employability, attitude and passion. Equally, students and graduates have become much more interested in finding the ‘right type’ of company pertaining to a list of criteria. Mission and values are becoming a big part of the search process, so too the culture of the organisations and whether these synergise with expectations.

The start-up industry has also disrupted the landscape for graduates. The opportunity to be involved at the incubator stage of a business is becoming increasingly popular, due to the benefits that come with these types of opportunities; flexible working, equity options and being able to have a key influence in the direction of the business, to name a few.

There is a long-standing connection between study and career development, however the way in which students are able to manage their aspirations boil down to circumstances. In the case of Birkbeck students, being able to develop your career while studying usually means being able to dictate the direction their careers will take. The key tool of our Careers and Employability Service helps graduates restructure their local environment and their self-development so that it best suits and works for them to make them more employable.

Our unique offer of studying in the evening while working during the day allows for a greater flexibility of options post-study. It also ensures that the level of employability among Birkbeck students is far more interesting – our students have a variety of backgrounds as well as life experience.

Though there is not a universal definition of employability, there is an understanding of its process and how it can benefit graduates in their search for a career. For Birkbeck and our students, employability is not just about the requirement of key skills for a particular career or job, but is also about the application of a mix of personal qualities and beliefs, understandings, skilful practices and the ability to reflect productively on experiences and to bring these qualities to a career.

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Arts degrees and employability: a career in publishing

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Creative writing MA student, Sarah Cumming, explains how her studies at Birkbeck helped her launch a career in publishing.

I chose to study creative writing for two reasons: the more obvious reason for studying creative writing – to become a better writer, but also because the course contained an optional publishing module – an opportunity to become one of a team of editors on a short fiction anthology. With a love of language and a slightly pedantic nature, I was always interested in the editing side of writing and I hoped to get an insight into the book business (where I hoped my future career might lie) from both a writer’s and an editor’s perspective.

The business of books

The publishing module began with choosing themes and artwork for the book and most importantly, the content. Along with the other editors, I read hundreds of submissions and once the short list had been whittled down to the final selection of stories, the editors and authors worked together to get the stories ready for publication. I had some experience of editing stories already because a huge part of this MA involves critiquing fellow students’ creative work. In groups of ten to fifteen, we sit in circles and unpick the author’s work and then try and put it back together again. As well as learning from my own experiences, I learn just as much from other people’s mistakes and triumphs. It’s a great way of picking up diplomacy skills too. The discussions can be intense with lots of different views, so I’ve also become better at articulating myself vocally.

The module included a copy-editing workshop, where I learned that the editing process involves two steps: the first, to stand back and look at the bigger picture – the overall structure and how a reader might receive it; the second, to hone in and look at the smaller details – consistency, sense and language use. The key to a successful edit is keeping these processes separate.

My learning curve did not end once the content was ready.  We then started work on marketing, distribution, pricing and organising launch parties and reading events. Social media was a key part of our marketing campaign and helped us reach a wider audience outside the college environment.  I thought I was quite clued up about social networking but I discovered plenty of new ways to reach people. We got our authors involved in interviews and podcasts and we wrote blogs on The Writers’ Hub. We also sent out hundreds of press releases covering every inch of the industry. One of my responsibilities was to oversee the whole process of producing the eBook, from formatting to actually pressing the ‘publish’ button on Amazon. I learnt a great deal about the digital side of publishing and how important it is in today’s ever-changing digital world. Nowadays, they are numerous ways for writers to publish their work and being on top of any new developments is vital. Things can change on a daily basis, especially with new business start-ups and publishing houses introducing digital imprints.  It was a proud moment for the whole team when the months of hard work turned into a finished product – a print run of 500 copies and an eBook in two different formats. This is what it looks like.

In the real world

During the second year of my MA, which I’m studying part time, I started a job as a digital editor for an educational publisher. My role involves developing online learning material for English language learners, from initial ideas to publication. It’s not just about checking for spelling and grammar errors, although this is important, it’s also about supporting authors and helping them shape their material so it becomes suitable for learners. Providing feedback for my peers at Birkbeck put me in good stead for this but it’s also shown me what’s like to be on the receiving end of an editor’s red pen – an important insight when looking after authors.

Although the compulsory lectures and seminars I’ve attended have been informative and helpful, I’ve gained the most from the ‘optional extras’ that the course offers. My advice would be to dive in head first and grab all opportunities. Since starting this course, I’ve introduced guest speakers at launch parties and readers’ events, negotiated with booksellers, written blogs for various publications, helped out on other anthologies and volunteered as a mentor on an adult literacy course. My student status gives me the chance to attend many other arts-based talks for free so I’m continually learning new things. Although I’m coming to the end of my course, the opportunities to get involved will still be there and I feel like completing my MA is really only the start of how it will benefit me in the future.

Sarah’s short story “Paradise”, is published in issue 10 of the Mechanic’s Institute Reveiw, launched yesterday (26 September 2010) and available from Amazon, local independent bookshops throughout the London area and from selected branches of Waterstones, and in e-book format from Amazon.

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University – business engagement – the key to tomorrow’s growth

This post was contributed by Rose Devaney, Business Engagement Manager at Birkbeck

Last week, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published a report called Tomorrow’s Growth: New routes to higher skills. It contains many interesting facts and recommendations, including that the government, business and the higher education (HE) sector should identify exemptions from the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) policy which means that those studying for a second undergraduate degree cannot access government funding, and that they consider arrangements to mitigate the removal of the part-time premium which HE institutions previously received to cover the additional costs associated with recruiting and retaining part-time students.

The report also recommended that provisions were made to enable universities to respond to employers’ needs, and that universities work with businesses to build relationships in which businesses can influence curriculum development. For an institution which was established with the aim of making higher education available to working people and which has part-time and flexible learning at its heart, this report is of great relevance to Birkbeck.

What do individuals, businesses and UK plc want?

I’d like to think that George Birkbeck, the founder of our College, would have had some interesting conversations with Douglas McGregor and Charles Handy. McGregor’s most famous theory – the X and Y management style – suggested that people want to continue to learn, develop and fulfil their potential. Handy proposed the concept of the ‘portfolio career’ whereby workers typically have a cluster of different employers or types of contract and make career transitions over the course of their lifetime. Both of these theories encompass the idea of lifelong learning – maintaining your skills base, marketability and adaptability as employers draw from an increasingly age- and globally-diverse pool of labour.

So, if we buy into the argument that individuals want to continue to develop, what about employers? Research tells us that by 2020, there will be a 17% reduction in the need for administrative, secretarial and skilled trades. Conversely, a 48% rise in skills pertaining to management, professional and technical occupations is forecast. How will employers remain competitive and meet these skills needs if employees are not encouraged to train and develop and how will we continue to compete internationally if our workforce can’t compete with those from emerging economies?

As the CBI report states: “Skills have become the global currency of the 21st century. Without proper investment in skills, people languish on the margins of society.”

It isn’t all bad news. As a nation, we have one of the most successful HE systems in the world but we need to create stronger partnerships with businesses and more flexibility in our programmes.

So, how are we tackling this at Birkbeck?

We have a vocal role model in our President – Baroness Joan Bakewell, who is a champion for lifelong learning and understands that it “improves skills and kick starts new careers”. We are also putting in place operational initiatives to increase the partnership opportunities between Birkbeck and businesses.

Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG, at Birkbeck Business Week 2013

Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG, at Birkbeck Business Week 2013

In June, we held our fourth annual Business Week, a series of lectures and events by academics and keynote speakers to demonstrate the impact of research in working life and to solidify the connection between learning and the workplace. With keynote speakers including Geoff Mulgan and Willie Walsh, it was great to see students and employers networking around common interests.

We are also developing partnerships with professional bodies to shape qualifications which allow students to achieve a degree and a professional qualification at the same time. For example, our partnership with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales allows students to fast track their accounting career.

Mentor and student at the launch of the mentoring scheme

Mentor and student at the launch of the mentoring scheme

We are currently piloting a mentoring programme with Credit Suisse to support students with soft skills and give them a taste of corporate life and its culture. It’s great to hear that many of the mentors feel they are developing their skills at the same time as the mentees.

Finally, we are expanding our online provision and enabling modular enrolment on a number of courses to allow students more choice and focus in their subject area and flexibility in the intensity of their study.

Further information:

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#PartTimeMatters – research insights

This post was contributed by Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

There is much to celebrate about part-time study and its life-changing rewards. My research tracking the career development of 3,700 part-time undergraduate students from their first year at university until two years after graduation demonstrates the benefits of part-time study. Four out of five of current students were working, mostly in full-time jobs in the public sector whilst 91% were employed two years after finishing their studies. The vast majority were using the skills they had learnt on their course in their jobs, so their studies were highly relevant to their working lives, and benefitted their employers too. In addition, over two-thirds of students, and four in five who had finished studying, believed that their ability to do their work had improved as a direct result of their course. Over a half of students in their first year and two-thirds of graduates had taken on more responsibility at work. This shows that those taking part-time courses start to profit from their learning well before they complete their studies. However, these positive outcomes were not always rewarded by employers. In fact, only 29% of students and about a half of graduates had a pay rise as a direct result of taking their course.

Both students’ and graduates’ non-working lives also were enriched by their studies. Four out of five students and nearly 90% of graduates said part-time study helped them develop as a person. Two thirds of students and nearly four in five graduates had greater self-confidence while well over a half of both current students and graduates were happier. Again, students benefited before they had graduated.

Despite all these life-changing gains from part-time study, part-time enrolments in England have fallen by 40% since 2010. This sudden and very dramatic fall suggests that the large increase in tuition fees in 2012 has played an important part, alongside the recession and cuts in training budgets. Loans are now available to cover the higher part-time tuition fees, but the majority of part-time students do not qualify for them. The loan eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Consequently, most people wanting to study part-time have to pay for their fees up-front and out of their own pocket.

Our research provides some insights about what needs to be done to stem declining enrolments and increase the demand for part-time study. It confirms the wider benefits of learning, and how society as a whole – not just individual students – benefit from part-time study. Remember most part-time students work in the public services. Nationally, the two most popular subjects studied part-time are ‘subjects allied to medicine’ such as nursing and midwifery, and education – taken by those wanting to be teachers. We all benefit from the skills these people learn. Yet, these professions are not very well paid compared to other professions. Although the financial returns to part-time study for individuals may be low, the wider non-financial benefits both for individuals and for society are high. As any economist will tell us, together these low ‘private returns’ and high ‘public returns’ justify more generous government subsidies and funding to keep tuition fees low and to encourage demand.

Other important characteristics of part-time students also support the case for low tuition fees and greater government subsidies. The vast majority of part-time students attend their local university because of their work and family commitments. They have to fit their studies around their existing responsibilities. Consequently, their choices of where to study are restricted. For instance, would-be students can’t opt for a cheaper course at a university miles away from where they live or work. If their local university is too expensive, they simply will not go, as they can’t shop around for a cheaper alternative. In addition, for part-time students, their decision about whether or not to go to university is more likely to be affected by the costs. Prospective part-time students may consider that these costs – the fees, maintenance and opportunity costs-  outweigh the benefits. Put simply, they feel that part-time study is just too expensive and unaffordable. The most efficient solution is more government subsidies to local universities to keep prices down and more financial help to part-time students to drive up demand – benefiting everyone.

15-14 May 2013 is Adult Learners’ Week. Find out more about the #PartTimeMatters campaign being launched by Birkbeck and an alliance of universities, businesses and unions.

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