What works to reduce equality gaps in employment and employability?

In partnership with Education Policy Institute and TASO


5th July 2022

Read the full report here

The Centre for Education and Youth are delighted to publish ‘What works to reduce equality gaps in employment and employability‘ in partnership with the Education Policy Institute and TASO.

Our research, running from December 2021 to March 2022, set out with three aims:

  • Understand the labour market outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g. students who are BAME, female, disabled, mature or care leavers) and how they compare to graduates from non-disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Collect evidence from the literature on what programmes work to improve labour market outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g. work experience, mentoring, interview practice)
  • Develop an overview of how Higher Education Providers deliver employment-improving programmes, including the challenges they experience and how they evaluate programmes

All of this was aimed at producing a report that would provide guidance on ‘what works’ for practitioners in Higher Education to improve the outcomes of their disadvantaged graduates. But, more importantly, our research aimed to understand gaps in the literature that can be remediated through further research supported by TASO.

In the context of a cost-of-living crisis and the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent months have seen rapid and significant changes in the labour market. It is therefore more important now than ever to share this research that can support improving labour market outcomes for graduates. 

Our Methods

In line with CfEY’s typical approach, this research was thoroughly mixed methods:

  • The Education Policy Institute conducted data analysis of the Longitudnal Earnings Outcomes (LEO) and Higher Education Statistics Agency graduate outcomes datasets to understand the character and magnitude of gaps in labour market outcomes for disadvantaged graduates. They also conducted a literature review to provide some suggestions on what the drivers of these gaps might be.
  • CfEY conducted a rapid literature review using one major online database to uncover academic literature on what programmes work to improve labour market outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • CfEY also conducted a consultation with 27 Higher Education practitioners who work in careers and employability, using both focus groups and a survey

Our Findings

Our full findings can be found in the report. We briefly summarise some key findings here:

What are the gaps in labour market outcomes?

  • Gaps between the graduate earnings of different groups emerge immediately after graduation. Three years post-graduation there are significant differences according to the subject studied and the university attended. There is a £20,000 gap between the 10 higher education providers (HEPs) with the highest-earning graduates and the 10 with the lowest. 
  • There are also significant earnings gaps after three years between graduates from different ethnic groups, with a gap of around £4,800 between the group with the highest earnings (Indian graduates) and the group with the lowest earnings (Pakistani graduates). There is a £4,500 gap in earnings between graduates from London and those from the North East.
  • Many of these gaps continue to grow in the 10 years post-graduation. Gaps between the highest- and lowest-earning ethnic groups grow from 16% one year after graduation to 24% nine years later. Similarly, the earning gap between graduates from London, the South East, the East of England and the rest of England grows from 10% to 16% over the same period. 
  • The growth in the gender earnings gap is particularly striking. In the year following graduation, male graduates earn 8% more than female ones, but in the following nine years this grows to a gap of 32%.
  • Existing research highlights the importance of course choice in driving some of the earnings differences between groups. Differences in subject choices can explain a substantial amount of the gaps by ethnicity, while provider choice is a more significant factor in explaining gaps between graduates from more and less disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Subject choice also explains much of the initial differences in earnings between male and female graduates. However, as graduates age, more of this gap is explained by other factors. These other factors are likely to be a combination of differences in parenting responsibilities, hours worked, the propensity to ask for pay rises or apply for promotions and labour market discrimination.

What works to close these gaps?

  • In total, 37 papers were selected as suitable for summary and synthesis in our literature review. 
  •  Nearly all the studies provide ‘emerging evidence’, with a minority providing ‘medium strength’ evidence. Just under a third of studies were run with samples of students from disadvantaged groups. Overall, we only encountered two studies that could robustly show a cause and effect relationship between a particular intervention and improved employability or employment outcomes. This highlights a major gap in the current literature.
  • Work experience is the most well-evidenced programme we studied. Six quantitative studies show a strong association between students participating in work experience and achieving better graduate outcomes. Stakeholder consultation studies find that employers prefer extra-curricular work, which students want to be taught by academics with industry experience, and that employers who host work experience want students who arrive already endowed with many of the skills they need to complete work in their setting to a high standard. 
  • The literature shows that a career counselling approach to information, advice and guidance (IAG) has a strong impact on students’ knowledge of and readiness for navigating the job market. We also find evidence of an association between the use of IAG to find job opportunities, earnings and job satisfaction at five years after graduation. There is also evidence of effective IAG improving the progression of disadvantaged students into postgraduate education by 22%
  • Our review also uncovered four kinds of innovative technology-based solutions to improving careers and employment outcomes that HEPs may offer. Most of these are early in their life cycle, but the studies offer proofs of concept that may be pursued for further research or development.
  • Two quantitative studies find that the explicit teaching of employment skills is not an effective way to improve the career and employment outcomes of students. Another quantitative study finds that offering sports and volunteering opportunities can help HE students to develop skills that make them employable.
  • Some providers conduct content analysis of job adverts or student surveys to identify which skills will best support their students in the current job market. They then build their instruction around these skills. Subject-specific employability skills programmes can be effective, although high-quality evidence on their impact remains lacking. 
  • Overall our review highlighted the need for a more concerted effort to study labour market outcome-enhancing programmes deployed in Higher Education with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also picks out ‘programmes of promise’ for this research to especially focus on.

What does the sector think about closing the gap?

From our surveys and focus groups, we learned a great deal about what practitioners in Higher Education Providers experience and believe about employment-improving programmes.

  • The most likely disadvantaged groups to be targeted for careers interventions are learners who are BAME, care leavers, disabled or from a low socio-economic-status background. Targeting is often run in conjunction with Widening Participation (WP) teams at a provider, while some providers use a data-driven approach to identifying groups in their student population to target.
  • Several education providers expressed an interest in (or a commitment to) offering universal provision that is accessible to disadvantaged students as opposed to targeted programming. Concerns about stigma and low uptake of targeted programmes motivated this, as well as wanting to enable all students to have the same opportunities. Some providers are already delivering this approach, with mandatory careers programmes for all students in a provider or folding provision into the wider academic curriculum. Relatedly, many consultees expressed a preference for a whole-provider approach to careers provision, believing this would be more impactful on disadvantaged students.
  • Work experience, employability skills workshops and IAG are the most likely interventions to be targeted at disadvantaged groups. Uptake of these targeted programmes is typically below 50%, but this is in line with the wider student population’s uptake of careers programmes. Internships and work experience are believed to be particularly impactful, which aligns with the findings of our literature review. 
  • Providers draw on a wide range of information sources, including the academic and technical literature as well as student voice, to decide what programmes to offer. Of the respondents to our survey, 82% stated that their selection of programmes is based on the evaluation of previous interventions. Providers are confident in their knowledge of ‘what works’ to improve graduate employability, but also recognise that many of the factors that affect these outcomes are beyond their control. 
  • Providers overwhelmingly evaluate what they offer using student feedback and use employment outcome data (typically outcomes survey data captured around 12 months after graduation) and case studies to a lesser extent. Surveying appears to be particularly problematic, with providers believing that students are over-surveyed, and that surveys produce low-quality data. Data collection after students graduate is also a major challenge, making it difficult to capture data on concrete employment outcomes that can be associated with participation in particular programmes.
  • Practitioners are positive about innovating and adopting new practices, but need the right support and structures to do so.

What next?

Our report makes some tentative recommendations based on the evidence we collected. However, we recognise that the whole sector is still early in its journey to understand how best to support improved employment outcomes for disadvantaged graduates. As such, we’d be delighted to find fellow travellers who would like to discuss our research and develop ways we can collaborate to pursue this timely and important goal. Lead author of the report, Baz Ramaiah, can be contacted at [email protected]

In partnership with: