I was delighted last week to read about the launch of The Office for Students’ competition fund initiative to help ‘universities and colleges looking for innovative ways to help students find graduate-level employment close to home’. It is great to see growing awareness of issues around geographical mobility (or immobility) of graduates and what this means for their career pathways. This is something that I have written lots about over the years, along with people like Charlie Ball. Charlie’s work with graduate destination statistics has repeatedly shown that graduates are not as mobile as is maybe commonly assumed, and that job opportunities are unevenly distributed around the country – leading to real questions about how accessible different jobs are to different students. The question of how far geographical mobility is a choice, and how this interrelates with choice of career direction underpins my PhD.
So, all in all, the competition fund is a really positive move. What this means in practice though will be interesting to see. The fund offers financial resource to universities and colleges, potentially working together through consortia, to develop projects to ‘broaden choice’ for graduates who live in the region they have grown up. Their example of potential projects include those which:
- aim to help particular groups of graduates work with partners to bring about change in the local labour market
- investigate and address the factors that influence decisions on where to work after graduation.
This interests me because it seems to me that the first point is basically about helping graduates who have to (or wish to) stay in their local areas, and the second point is about understanding why some students are less mobile than others (with, am I right in thinking, a suggestion that we could be helping those graduates become more mobile and therefore access a broader range of opportunities?).
These are noble aims, and fundamentally improving graduate career outcomes especially for those in regions with relatively limited job prospects will rely on one of the two – either increasing job opportunities or increasing mobility. However, I can’t help thinking that in practice there is a complexity here which ties in to ethical practice, and our feelings as careers practitioners about whether people ‘should’ move or ‘should’ stay. Whether we think people ‘should’ move or ‘should’ stay depends on our orientation to the community – with some people being ‘community activists’ and some encouraging young people to move from their communities for the sake of their career development (Shepherd and Hooley, 2016). It also depends on how we view individual career paths, and whether we think someone’s best interests involve mobility, or can be met in the community (this is something I have written about in a chapter for the new book Graduate Careers in Context edited by Burke and Christie).
In terms of projects that encourage mobility, or encourage individuals to find work in their local communities, some questions we need to ask ourselves revolve around the ethical complexities of these issues. These include: how do we present these options impartially to clients? How do we ensure that students and graduates really have choice about their career pathway and choice of location? Is true ‘choice’ even possible, given that opportunities are always geographically embedded? What messages might we give out implicitly or explicitly through the development of new initiatives? For example if we encourage student geographical mobility might we reinforce the idea that to be a ‘success’ involves mobility, and that people who lack mobility somehow fail? What messages might we give out through initiatives based in the local labour market? Some possibilities are:
- That local labour markets are impoverished and need help (potentially reinforcing the idea that there are more opportunities elsewhere and the best choices involve moving elsewhere)
- That students ‘should’ stay to help ailing areas
- That ‘graduate jobs’ are the be-all and end-all, and that salary (for example) is an important criterion of success. This potentially reinforces again the narratives around the ‘best’ jobs being elsewhere, and doesn’t support other ideas of ‘success’ – such as the value of being part of a community. Graduates in the regions have for many many years contributed in their communities, perhaps not (always) holding high-paying high-status jobs but contributing through other means.
The issue of potentially reinforcing ‘graduate career = success’ narrative is that this narrative may not be sustainable in a local area – if someone takes a graduate job in their local area, but then 5 years down the line is looking for their ‘next step’ will they find it in their area if their ideas of career progression are based on salary and status? Is there a risk of frustration or later out-migration from a region? On the flip side I guess there is the argument that if you reinforce graduate opportunities, then further opportunities in regions will ‘grow’ from there. But whether or not this happens is a different thing…
This is not to say that the initiative is problematic, far from it, I think the initiative is great, and hopefully there will be lots of interesting projects and potentially some more research coming out of it. However, I think that it is important for practitioners, universities and consortia involved in these projects to remain mindful of the complexities of the issue, and the particular ways in which the services we offer may produce or reproduce notions of mobility or fixity. Ideally I would like to see projects concerned both with increasing opportunities for mobility and increasing opportunities locally. I think this is the best way to ensure that students have as much choice as possible. However, I do think there is a risk in both kinds of project that the idea of impoverished local labour markets may be reinforced. Therefore it is important that messages about the projects are carefully managed, and any projects are properly evaluated to identify the impacts, intended and unintended, on regional graduates.
A further point is that I think there are sometimes interesting complexities in terms of micro-geographies – so within one region initiatives may be able to identify and promote specific opportunities, but if these opportunities are not in the part of the region where graduates are based this may not meet the needs either of the graduates or of the region. I can remember this from when I was a new graduate living in North Cornwall. There were some interesting jobs available in Cornwall (GradSouthWest was a relatively new initiative at that point I think, as a graduate jobs portal for the South West of England), but these were nowhere near where I lived, and therefore potentially just as remote from me as jobs elsewhere. As a result I think we need to remain aware about how we think about mobility – with intra-regional mobility and even commuting being different kinds of mobility – it is not simply a case of ‘mobile’ or ‘immobile’ as the mobilities turn in social sciences would tell us. Similarly it is not as simple as just creating jobs ‘in’ a region for that region’s graduates, if those jobs are not in the same places as the graduates. Potentially it is important to consider that even within regions some people will be more disadvantaged than others – through being remote from regional centres, and having limited access to transport (with public transport typically limited in very rural areas, and differences in the ability of young people to afford / be able to drive).
Anyway, as I say I am delighted that this competition fund has been launched, and would hope that whatever projects are developed are fully thought through and properly evaluated. This way we will ensure that we extend and develop the evidence base around graduate career development and geography and ensure that future initiatives can learn from these projects. We should also, perhaps, be looking to other examples from other nations, and even potentially closer to home – for example projects like the ScotGrad initiative in Scotland which has supported graduate placements in all regions of Scotland but has used a different funding model for rural and remote communities in the Highlands and Islands to ensure a strong supply of placements in these areas. Developing our understanding in this area is important, so good luck to everyone who is thinking of taking part in this latest initiative, and I’ll look forward to hearing more about the projects that come from the fund!