Scottish university leavers have shown a capacity to rise quickly to higher levels in their chosen professions, says Alastair Sim
Graduation season is nearly upon us again with another year’s bright and enthusiastic, newly-qualified students about to make their way in the world of work or further study. This is a justifiably proud moment for the individuals collecting their awards and tossing their mortar boards in the air. And so it should be. They have worked hard, in most cases they have juggled their commitment to study with part-time jobs, volunteering, work experience and other extra-curricula activities as well as something of a social life. They are realistic, knowing that they have to earn their future success in the world of work. But they do have very strong prospects and they need, just as anyone in search of a job needs, to have the confidence to take them forward.
Even through very tough economic times, Scotland’s new graduates have had every reason to be confident. That confidence can only increase as we see economic recovery take hold. Yes, times have been hard. No-one is in any doubt about that; not least the graduates themselves. But graduates’ prospects have been resilient, and their skills have supported businesses’ resilience and success.
Within six months of graduation, 90 per cent of graduates from Scotland’s universities are in positive destinations. That involves a mix of things; full and part-time employment as well as further study. This happens to be the highest level in the UK and the sector is incredibly proud that graduates from our universities have beaten the rest of the UK on this important measure for the last three years. Of those in employment, 70 per cent are in professional level occupations and employers rate them highly. 85 per cent of Scottish employers surveyed in the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which reached over 91,000 businesses, said the university graduates they had recruited in the last year were well, or very well, prepared for work. This figure was also a couple of percentage points higher than the rest of the UK could boast. When pushed, as they were by the survey, for any grumbles or shortcomings in their graduate recruits, employers had little to say. 94 per cent were content with the experience and maturity of university leavers from Scotland, 96 per cent content with the skills set with which graduates left university and 97 per cent with the attitude and motivation of Scottish university leavers. I take that as a solid endorsement of the work-readiness of our graduates in Scotland.
Graduates are also showing a capacity to rise quickly to levels of employment which fully utilise their skills. Graduates’ destinations are tracked six months after study and then again after three years. Within the three-year window, the proportion of graduates working full-time in “professional” jobs as classified by the data collection body had risen to 79 per cent and nearly a third of graduates saw a £5,000 to £10,000 increase in their salary over that three years. This increase outstrips inflation, suggests solid career progression and is more impressive given that this longitudinal survey tracks the progress of graduates who picked up their certificates in 2008-09; revisiting them in 2012. These are the graduates who had to forge careers as the recession started to impact most forcefully on the labour market and as salaries have stagnated.
While graduate prospects have remained strong in the face of economic adversity, they have not been immune. It is reassuring that of the very small minority who have not gone straight into a positive destination by the six-month point, the longitudinal survey finds 86.4 per cent have done so within the three-year window.
Scotland’s universities have not been complacent. No university wants to see any student complete their studies and struggle to pursue their ambitions. Last year, Universities Scotland set about reviewing the employability support offered by our universities. We found an overwhelming amount going on; projects to enhance students’ work experience, broaden skills sets and tune the curricula to the needs of employers. We made some recommendations where we felt good practice could be shared and made recommendations for new approaches in some areas. We will be revisiting those recommendations this year. We also found student entrepreneurialism to be a significant growth area. A culture change is taking hold by which more and more graduates are supported and encouraged to think about starting up their own business which will create jobs rather than look to find a job created by someone else. This is a trend that universities are keen to continue and one that fits well with our role in innovation and business creation in terms of our research.
I see lots to be positive about and I strongly believe that our graduates do too. They are critical co-creators of our nation’s success.
• Alastair Sim is a director of Universities Scotland www.universities-scotland.ac.uk