Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


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Local work for local graduates?

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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!

 

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Thinking on Buses…

Today I am travelling*. This isn’t unusual, I normally travel to the mainland about once a month. This time, as always, I have taken an academic text-book to read and some academic papers. And I was thinking on the bus (after the plane) how much I enjoy this reading-on-the-go, and strangely find it actually so much more productive, as days reading go, than being sat in my office. That’s when I remembered a paper by Finn and Holton that I’ve recently read about the experience of commuting students and their experiences of mobility to/ from university. Holton and Finn’s paper makes really interesting reading in terms of challenging the binaries in Higher Education discourse about ‘mobile’ (i.e. those who’ve moved for university) and ‘immobile’ (local) students. Instead they show that “local” students also experience mobility (through their experience of commuting) and also how this transitional commuting space is not simply ‘dead time’ but a productive space “work[ing] towards, rather than, against the process of knowledge production, identity formation and feelings of belonging” (2017:13).

Now, thinking about Holton and Finn, I was thinking about my everyday mobilities – I don’t strictly ‘commute’ to mainland Scotland (my office base is in Orkney), but I am mobile, very mobile, across the wider region as a result of my work. And rather than ‘lost’ time, my travel time is valuable. It is particularly valuable for ‘thinking’ work, so it struck me as totally logical that students who are commuting to university might also find travel time useful for some of their higher education studies – their ‘thinking work’. However, unlike the students in Holton and Finn’s study, I’m not commuting to a place of study, so this suggests for me that rather than being a function of where I am moving to when I’m travelling, there is an intrinsic value of travelling in terms of thinking space.

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How does the experience of travelling impact on us? (picture courtesy of pixabay.com)

Continuing on my bus journey about one minute later I then remembered a tweet I’d seen from Robert MacFarlane on his phrase of the day ‘“solvitur ambulando” – ‘it is solved by walking’ (Latin). Diogenes, then St Augustine, Thoreau & Chatwin, inter alia.’ I liked the concept of a ‘problem solved by walking’ and wrote the quote down at the time. I have always found walking helpful for sorting out problems, but probably had thought about this more from the perspective of the fresh air and the exercise rather than anything else. But what occurred to me today is that it is clearly also about the experience of movement. Simply moving through space does something interesting to the way that I think….

At this point I started to wonder Lefebvre’s concept of ‘rhythmanalysis’, and the way that the rhythms of urban space can impact on people’s experiences… but I really don’t know enough about his ideas to know if there’s a link there or not!

Now I’m off the bus and writing this all down I realise this blog itself mirrors something of my ‘travelling’ thought processes – it’s a bit of a flow through a whole series of semi-connected thoughts, with lots of scope for further ‘wonderings’ (wanderings). I guess if I was to try to summarise I would say that my concept of mobility and what it means has maybe been challenged and broadened – it is not just about functionalist movement through space to get somewhere, but the very act of movement impacts on us. I know that Finn and Holton will have a great deal more to say to me on this topic, here’s another quote from their paper which I think sums up some of where I have got to on the topic:

“Indeed, mobilities theory allows us to appreciate mobility as much more than the physical act of moving between places and spaces; it is multi-sensory and embodied so that it becomes ‘something we feel in an emotional and affective sense’ (Adey 2010, 162).” (Finn and Holton, 2017 p.3)

So, I’ve now added a number of new pieces of literature to my ‘to read’ pile from mobilities theory, Finn and Holton, and Lefebvre’s ‘Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life’ too. If anyone else has ideas of other things I should read let me know! That should keep me busy for at least the next couple of journeys!

 

*This is a touch of poetic licence, I’m not actually travelling today, but when I wrote the blog I was…!

Reference

Mark Holton & Kirsty Finn (2017): Being-in-motion: the everyday (gendered  and classed) embodied mobilities for UK university students who commute, Mobilities, DOI:10.1080/17450101.2017.1331018

 


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International vs Internal Student Mobilities

One of my colleagues at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Dr Philomena De Lima is doing some work at the moment to bring together scholarship on international migration and internal migration. Thinking about her work, I read the paper “Internal and International Migration: Bridging the Theoretical Divide”  (King, Skeldon and Vullnetari, 2008). Now, in my PhD I think about internal migration the whole time – how students and graduates move from their island locations, mostly to the Scottish Mainland. Most of my reading has been about internal migration and rural-urban migration specifically. Sometimes in conversations with others I am asked about how my work fits with current international interests in migration (say, for example, when I was last in Greece and the refugee crisis there was very visible). However I haven’t really thought a great deal about it, as most of the research into international migration doesn’t seem that relevant to me. I guess in many ways I have been stuck on the ‘internal’ side of the migration divide!

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Refugee camp at Mytilini, Lesvos Island where I was at a conference last year (photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Reading King et al’s paper was very interesting though, because they highlight how the traditions of researching international and internal migration have indeed been quite separate (it’s not just me who has focused on one and not the other…). In their paper they suggest that we should be ‘bridging the theoretical divide’- partly to address the imbalance in scholarship (most scholarship is on the topic of international migration, but most migration is internal) and also because the boundaries between internal and international migration in practice can be very blurred. In particular they discuss the systems approach to migration as being a possible paradigm that can encompass both internal and international migration. Reading their paper has inspired me to not think so narrowly about migration but to consider how international and internal migration might be part of the same spectrum. In fact when reading their paper I was struck by reflecting on how often international migration came up in my interviews with participants as a future possibility (and an actual lived experience in a couple of cases).

What it also got me thinking about is practical implications from my research. So within the UK higher education setting a key emphasis in recent years in terms of graduate employment has been on internationalisation of students and graduates to enable them to access a global workplace (Diamond et al, 2011). However what has received a great deal less attention are issues around internal mobility of students and graduates. My research is showing that this is an important issue for students especially given that graduate jobs are not equally geographically distributed, with a strong centralisation in city regions, and in the UK particularly the South East (Ball, 2012).

What occurs to me is that perhaps universities and higher education policy has been particularly focused on international mobility without necessarily seeing a link to internal mobility. But, I would suggest, perhaps these two could be thought of as part of the same spectrum? And if universities are serious about increasing graduate choice, and increasing graduate access to employment then consideration should be given to internal mobility as well as international mobility.

It would be really interesting to explore further some of the approaches to internationalisation within Higher Education (not an area of specialism for me) and to identify whether similar approaches could be used in terms of internal mobility of students. Considering the mobilities of students generally (internal and international) may be beneficial for students and graduates from very rural and remote communities, but equally given increasing trends for students to study from home, mobility more generally may be an important issue for students all over the country.

References

Ball, C. (2012) ‘Regional Overview of Graduate Employment’, in HECSU, What do Graduates Do? Manchester; HECSU p.4

Diamond, Walkley, Forbes, Hughes and Sheen (2011) ‘Global Graduates: Global Graduates into Global Leaders’ Association of Graduate Recuiters

King, Skeldon and Vullnetari (2008) “Internal and International Migration: Bridging the Theoretical Divide”