Thursday 25 June 2020 4:34 am

Give Covid graduates the chance to succeed

Debra Humphris is vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton and chair of the advisory group on Supporting Graduates

This is a year like no other for graduates. 

Those leaving university this summer face new and unprecedented challenges in making their way in the world. Recruitment freezes have been imposed, job offers have been rescinded, and whole sectors of the economy are facing existential challenges.

So where does that leave our university leavers? 

Read more: Gavin Williamson: All pupils will be back in school in September

We know that graduates have much to offer, that they are highly skilled, and that what they have learned at university is both valued by employers and hugely beneficial to the UK economy. 

Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies at the beginning of the year showed that as well as boosting job and salary prospects for the individual, a degree offers a much wider range of benefits which are critical in providing support for our public services. Never has that been more evident than in recent months, as tens of thousands of nursing and healthcare students have jumped to the aid of the NHS in the fight against Covid-19.

Since the virus struck, universities have done all they can to support their students and recent graduates. This includes moving careers services online, organising workplace consultations between students and employers, and a host of other services including careers cafes, recruitment fairs and specific campaigns to help students boost their employability in these uncertain times.

But universities can only do so much. It is imperative that the considerable talents of this year’s cohort, as well as graduates from recent years, do not go to waste. 

We need to act now to ensure that graduates are in the best possible position to help support the UK’s recovery. The release today of a new report, Supporting graduates in a Covid-19 economy, highlights some immediate steps that the government could take, working in partnership with universities and business, to ensure that the class of 2020 and beyond can prosper. 

Key among these is providing more paid internship opportunities through a UK-wide recovery programme. The creation of fair and meaningful opportunities for all our young people, including those from disadvantaged groups, is critical to the social and economic recovery of this country. 

Universities and businesses already work together to provide such opportunities, but with additional funding, such a scheme could help tens of thousands of graduates and local businesses. Graduates and employers would both benefit, while government support would mean that these opportunities are available across the UK’s regions and nations, providing support to local economies and small and medium-sized enterprises who are most in need of help.

Better supporting graduate internship opportunities and promoting the existing resources available for those looking for work is also necessary. Recent figures show that 43 per cent of students and graduates were looking for or considering an internship, yet less than three per cent were actually on such programmes. By working with graduate services in England and across the devolved administrations, the government could help ensure that these schemes reach a wider audience and boost graduate opportunities.

Then there’s the matter of postgraduate study. The business community is clear that postgrad students, especially in key fields, have valuable skills that can support economic recovery. Yet this route can seem unavailable for many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack options to fund further study,

In the short term, the UK could follow the US and set interest rates at zero per cent for courses considered valuable to the economy, easing students’ financial concerns, while in the long term the government should commit to exploring other options to widen access to postgraduate study.

Finally, we should focus more attention on shorter courses which allow for graduates to be upskilled and retrained. Relaxing rules currently preventing universities from offering such courses could open higher education up to an entirely new audience. Our universities should be given the opportunity to teach more of these courses, to meet the new and emerging needs of the economy.

We know the economic impact of Covid-19 will be severe. Universities stand ready to support their graduates through this turbulent period, but the scale of the challenge means they cannot do this alone.

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.

Read more: I helped write the manifesto — and now our skills agenda is more important than ever

Main image credit: Getty

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