What does ‘employability’ mean amid global pandemic and recession? Covid-19, higher education and the graduate labour market

Graduate employability dominated the international higher education policy landscape over the last two decades. Governments see higher education as a means of ensuring a skilled, work ready labour force; students increasingly demand job-related financial returns from their ‘investments’ in higher education; and graduate labour market outcomes are now a key metric for regulation and ranking in many countries. However, COVID-19 has a major impact on the graduate labour market. A global recession is predicted, countries’ GDPs are plunging, unemployment levels are rising. In the UK alone, the number of vacancies dropped by nearly 50 per cent in the first quarter of the year, and plans from major graduate recruiters and particularly small and medium sized enterprises are in turmoil. The reality is that many graduates leaving higher education in 2020 and 2021 will struggle to find graduate level employment, or any job at all. History shows that graduates who attempt to enter the labour market at times like this not only face significant early challenges, there can be a significant scarring of long-term career trajectories and life-time earnings. Such impacts are rarely evenly distributed and can deepen existing social and regional inequalities.

Recessions and mass youth unemployment often lead to increased student numbers as individuals shelter from the labour market storm while advancing their position. However, with question marks over teaching delivery during the pandemic and potential difficulties in paying fees in those countries where students finance tuition, student numbers may drop sharply and survey evidence implies this will happen. This may deepen inequalities further with those who can afford it staying on in higher education and those who can’t struggling in the increasingly congested labour market. At the same time work is changing quickly, with automation, digitisation and gigification, processes likely to be accelerated as companies move during the pandemic to maintain production while reducing labour costs. Inexorably these changes mean that the mix of skills required by graduate employers are changing also.

What can individual students and graduates do and how should higher education institutions and systems respond? And in the middle of this crisis of employability how can higher education broaden expectations about its contribution to individual graduate agency and the broader public good? This webinar brings together a panel of three leading experts to discuss these questions, and invites our participation.