Beyond social capital: how the virtual revolution sparked by Covid-19 could level the careers playing field for underrepresented students
There are more students from underrepresented backgrounds  at university than ever before but what happens when they graduate? The latest Graduate Outcomes data, looking at those who left higher education in 2018, hit our screens last month and revealed that while more than 60% of white graduates were in full-time employment, only half of black graduates were. Meanwhile, male graduates were paid 10% more than female graduates, and 28% of men and just 16% of women were earning more than £30,000. Men earning more than £39,000 outnumbered the women two to one. Additionally, fewer graduates with a known disability go on to full-time employment than those with no known disability.
These unwelcome figures are unlikely to be improved by the consequences of the pandemic. If severe disruption to this year’s degree assessments weren’t enough, almost every step graduates would previously have taken to find work and start a career has changed or vanished. Employer placements and internships have been made virtual or cancelled, and events that are inherently physical, such as career fairs and assessment centres, are rapidly moving online, with their success yet to be determined. Graduate jobs hang in the balance, with job offers already being deferred or rescinded, and just over the horizon is the forecast of a deep global recession and an economy that faces a long and uncertain road to recovery.
It would be easy to assume that graduates from underrepresented backgrounds will be particularly affected, given the generally disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on black and Asian ethnic groups and economically disadvantaged groups.
But a new report published by Emerge Education, Universities UK and Jisc, Employability rebooted, offers the view that technology, as it steps up to provide virtual career and employment services and starts to forge new employment pathways as a result, could also be a great leveller. It suggests the creation of a new employability ecosystem that is capable of democratising the future of work.
‘Let’s try something different’
An attitude of change is summed up in the report by Christian Garcia, associate dean and executive director at the Toppel Career Center, University of Miami, where diversity, equity and inclusion are a key focus: “Out of these kinds of situations, innovation happens oftentimes. Sometimes a solution has been right in front of your face the entire time. You don’t realise that until something like this happens. So I’ve challenged my staff to not look at this from a perspective of, ‘Oh, we have to adjust,’ but, ‘No, let’s innovate. Let’s try something different’.”
A key issue is the social capital students bring to the employment journey. Garcia recounts: “I was a first-generation student and I often put myself in the shoes of the student today. What if I wanted to go into Wall Street? How would I have done that? My parents were immigrants. Nobody in my family, not even distant cousins, knew about that world. How would I have been able to figure it out? So my heart always goes out to these students … They’re competing with other students who have parents, grandparents and even great grandparents with a legacy of college education and professional experience.”
Relatively few employers provide work experience and so better-connected students end up securing placements through their own networks. Constrained resources also mean that employers engage only with limited numbers of institutions – just 23 institutions on average, according to a survey by the Institute of Student Employers – and universities with a higher proportion of traditionally underrepresented students are the ones that often lose out. Many smaller or less centrally located universities also find it hard to attract large employers to their careers fairs.
A great, levelling benefit of virtualising these employment pathways is that engagement need no longer be dictated by budgets or geography. “The more fairs go virtual, the more access our students should have to a wider range of employers who may not have looked to us before. That has to be one good thing to come out of this,” says Judith Baines, head of careers and employment service at the University of Hertfordshire.
Christian Garcia says that technology “has really transformed what we do. To be able to provide access to those students who don’t have the network, the social capital, compared to their peers has been amazing. It’s all about democratising access. The fact that now they have way more job opportunities and internship opportunities at their disposal is great.”
Another side of social capital is self-confidence and presentation, which can be transformed by the virtualisation of assessment centres and interviews. The University of Hertfordshire is tackling this, as well as vital practice and feedback on presentation, through mock virtual assessment centres, to mirror the online environment students will face in ‘real’ virtual assessment centres. “Many of our students don’t have the cultural capital of more privileged students,“ says Baines. “They don’t necessarily know about the whole process of what assessments look like in large companies. For us, it’s a gamechanger.”
The digital divide
The digital divide continues to present a barrier, with students from underrepresented backgrounds more likely to have home environments where they struggle with quiet space, internet bandwidth and adequate equipment. This can be amplified as employment pathways are brought online. Over the Covid-19 crisis many universities have put rapid emergency responses in place, offering students free laptop and dongle loans.
And as more and more university courses adopt blended learning and digital assessment, with the capacity to go fully online in the event of future pandemic waves, it’s to be hoped that barriers to digital learning will have been tackled long before the stage of employment assessment and recruitment.
Current moves to virtualise employment pathways are only the beginning. “Even if we’re back on campus, I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to ‘normal’, at least not in the next few years,” says Garcia. “Do we really want people to be in a room with 2,000 others, shaking hands? I just don’t think it’s realistic. I don’t know that employers are going to want to do that, or that they are going to be in the position financially to be travelling to college campuses, so virtual events make most sense.”
As virtualisation takes hold, Employability rebooted presents a vision for the future that moves beyond placements, careers fairs and assessment centres. As the report says “Underrepresented students face a number of significant barriers along the journey from university to the workplace but there are early indications that some of the technology-driven changes shaping the post-Covid future of learning and work are already reducing some of these barriers, moving the sector
closer to … an employment ecosystem that is more networked, tailored and accessible.”
Aggregating recruiters and employers, large and small, near and globally remote, and making them available to any university will transform opportunity and enable all students to be globally networked, with employers able to find the graduate most suited to their needs rather than one who happens to be in the right place, at the right time, knowing the right people. Employers can build relationships with potential recruits long before the job-hunting season, and students can present their skills and competencies in a more democratic environment.
Technology will also facilitate graduates’ discovery of opportunities, careers, employers and
job roles. Career choices will depend less on existing social capital and instead will be shaped by their competences, experiences, interests and passions, with technology helping them to discover how they could pursue these. Technology will also help employers cope with large volumes of applicants by providing higher-quality feedback to thousands of applicants and reducing the rate of ‘silent rejection’ and its adverse psychological effect. It also makes anonymisation of candidates easier and more effective, reducing bias.
Because career support will no longer depend on physical presence, it will be more accessible to those not present on a campus, including not only online and blended learning students but those with disabilities, caring responsibilities and so on.
Demystifying the world of work
And the digital transformations that are changing all areas of university learning and teaching also offer the opportunity of removing jobs and careers from their non-academic silo. Technology can help universities and employers collaborate across the curriculum and every other part of the student experience, maximising the value each brings to the table. This will help demystify the world of work for students and set their expectations around the skills and attitudes required to succeed in it, improving engagement and student buy-in.
Indeed, Rob Ingram, head of employability at Falmouth University, goes as far as to say: “Students should be working with employers throughout their degree, working in a transdisciplinary format, engaging with people from other courses and engaging with wider society while studying. In that way students develop better links in a way that can be scaled so it doesn’t rely on social capital. It shouldn’t rely on a student coming to university already having the right connections to line up a job.”
 which may include BAME backgrounds, areas of low household income or socioeconomic status, mature students, students with disabilities, care leavers, carers and, in terms of graduate outcomes, women