Feedback from Stuart and further research

My first piece of formative feedback from Stuart arrived yesterday and it contained a lot of useful stuff. The overarching theme was pretty much ‘do more research and substantiate your claims’ and so I’ve decided that I’m going to spend this first chunk of Phase 2 really getting to grips with what the actual audience is for this project and making my intentions crystal clear. From that position I feel as though I’ll be in a much better place to create a case study for the panel and to put together a solid literature review.

I’m going to start by using Stuart’s feedback as a framework for further research, responding to each of his points with my thoughts and then with some data to back my positions up.

1. Research question – (How can design support struggling graduates?)

Initial thoughts – Whilst I understand that there is a need to quantify and qualify the ways in which graduates are ‘struggling’ and that both ‘struggling’ and ‘support’ are vague terms; I don’t quite understand why their vagueness is a problem in this specific context. As I understood it the point of the research question was to act as a beginning hook, essentially a prompt from whence a deeper investigation would ensue. The feedback on this has not been consistent between webinars and written feedback, my initial question was actually much more specific than this and was pared back for this hand-in after the majority of our questions were encouraged to be less wordy in the webinar.

My plan is and has always been to target any graduate that needs a leg up. Part of the impetus behind this project was to rally against the traditionally narrow window of support that is available to most graduates in the immediate period after graduation. Limiting my focus to the slightly wider window of 3-5 years after graduation doesn’t do much to address that, all I’d be doing at that point is creating another arbitrary cut off point and excluding a huge body of individuals that might wish to engage with my project. I reject the idea that I should only cater to a narrower group; I believe that there is a more effective way that language can be used to market this project to individuals that doesn’t put an age range or hard figure on who can / can’t get involved.

The particular types of support that graduates require are also nuanced and multifaceted in nature. A lot of the issues that Stuart listed in his feedback are actually more intertwined than they are separate. Graduates that are financially struggling for example might be having problems with employment or with health, a lack of academic confidence could be the direct result of a demeaning job wearing someone down or a bad relationship with a university tutor etc. etc.

My primary hope is to develop a confidence & competence building platform for the plethora of today’s graduates that feel mis-sold on the notion that their university degree would ‘open doors’ for them and allow them to ‘get ahead’.

The problem is that there is an oversupply of graduates for the number of Knowledge Based Economy (KBE) i.e. graduate positions that are available. [Hesketh, Brown & Williams 2004] The result of this shift has been that many of today’s graduates are unable to transition into the graduate positions that they’ve worked towards for years. In this sense, academic attainment can be seen to have lost value in the marketplace as the number of potential employees with HE qualifications continues to rise. The university degree, traditionally a marker of employability in the KBE is often now seen as little more than a ‘tick in the box’ for employers who have instead shifted their focus towards graduates that display a wider array of skills and competencies. As Hesketh, Brown & Williams write in their book The Mismanagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy:

I’ve found this book to be really helpful in understanding the wider discourse around this topic. At the core this text is an evaluation of graduate employability in two major western countries (UK & USA). It looks at the ‘promise’ sold to graduates by governments and HE institutions and compares it to the lived experiences and realities of graduates and employers engaged in the graduate marketplace.

Though the book is now ten years old, it goes a long way to setting the scene we see before us today. It concludes that despite an increase in demand for knowledge workers there remains a supply/demand problem with regard to jobs in these areas which is not something that has improved much since this book was published.

The take away from this text is that more needs to be done to aid ’employability’ of graduates which can be quite a nebulous and hard to define thing that varies from industry to industry. The book broadly gestures that ‘personal attributes and skills’ are increasingly more important than academic attainment, largely in part due to the oversupply of new knowledge workers (graduates) for the jobs that are available.

This backs up my initial position that there is broadly an ‘oversaturation’ of graduate job markets which has lead to a scenario wherein many skilled knowledge workers are being underutilised. Another article that I’ve recently read further backed this up:

from Tomlinson, M., 2008. ‘The degree is not enough’: students’ perceptions of the role of higher education credentials for graduate work and employability. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(1), pp.49-61.

Tomlinson summaries it well in a section referencing earlier work undertaken by Hesketh and Brown:

What does all of this mean for me and my project?

Based on the evidence outlined in these two texts it would appear that my presupposition that the ‘value of a degree in real terms has fallen’ was broadly correct. Employers are increasingly looking for graduates that offer the ‘whole package’ rather than just the ‘tick in the box’ of academic attainment. In a labour market where Higher Education becomes the norm, graduates that have not found new and innovative ways to stand out from the crowd are left behind and in many cases now flood labour markets that were traditionally reserved for those without a degree. The problem is in the supply of KBE jobs and without broad, sweeping changes to government policy this is unlikely to change. My aim with this project is not to try and ‘solve’ this issue. I’m not even sure that I would know where to start with that. Instead I want to develop a business aimed at minimising the effects of this failing system on those that are subject to it.

2. Aims, objectives, purpose

Initial thoughts – Stuart’s main criticism throughout this submission has been that I haven’t backed up anything I’ve written. It’s a fair criticism and is something that I’m struggling to adjust to. Up until GDE740 my more hyperbolic and informal writing style had stood me well but I need to step up my academic writing for this module and I recognise that. It’s just hard to change old habits!

I believe that some of the unsubstantiated claims in the initial text such as the ‘value of a degree having fallen’ have now been discussed above. I will also make sure to back up my claims about UK political parties’ negative influence on the overall direction of HE over the past 20 years. (I don’t think this will be hard to do). I have however struggled to find any specific data on the proportion of graduates that are working entry level service industry jobs but will continue to dig around. The closest stat that I’ve found is that around 40% of graduates have not made it into ‘graduate jobs’ at all in recent years but that’s not quite the same thing.

The Guardian also recently touted the figure of a 12% overall UK-wide drop in graduate opportunities. The impact of Covid-19 & Brexit on graduate employability cannot be understated. It may take time for specific hard data on these evolving issues to emerge however it isn’t hard to speculate how graduate markets will be affected. The closing off of free travel and work within the European jobs market for one has been a specific and significant blow.

Thoughts on a business model-

At the time of writing I hadn’t locked down answers to many of the questions Stuart asked in his feedback. I had started to play around with some rudimentary ideas about how the project might be structured and might make money / pay for itself but more research needs to be done in this area. It’s clear from the feedback however that the level of detail that I outlined in my project brief was not granular enough and so I’ve done my best to begin to describe my idea below:

There are a number of key differences between this proposed model and other online learning platforms such as Domestika or GreatCoursesPlus which I will explore in detail in another post. The most obvious difference though is that my idea promotes active engagement and involvement rather than passive consumption of materials. Sites like Domestika work with individuals to create curated tutorial video series and can be pretty great for when you want to learn a new skill. I’ve used them myself to learn things like Adobe XD but my main criticism is that they lack any semblance of interpersonal interaction with the content provider. These sites also don’t offer any hands-on workshops / personal development opportunities which form a core part of my proposal.

Another key difference between this model and more formal qualifications such as a degree itself is that there is no pressure to succeed in my model. The user profile passively builds over time through engagement with topics that interest the user which merely help paint a broader picture of them as an engaged and curious person. This wider engagement in learning and personal growth carries none of the performance-based pressures that HE contain whilst also aligning with what many businesses identify as desirable characteristics in graduate applicants:

From Hinchliffe, G. and Jolly, A., 2011. Graduate identity and employability. British Educational Research Journal, 37(4), pp.563-584.

Another positive aspect of my business model is that it essentially provides a ‘side hustle’ opportunity to mid-career industry insiders and experts / professionals. Such individuals can sign up to deliver events which we would then advertise bringing in attendees and money; they would then earn a healthy cut of the total. Having such an open schedule also means that there is a route for long-term users of the site that have proven themselves through collaborations and engagement with events to eventually host their own events. It’s a fluid way of building an online learning community that I haven’t seen tried anywhere else in quite the same way.

A valid criticism of my model however is that users could abuse it, paying for ‘the right’ courses to construct a great profile and then simply not attending them. (or attending them to get the badge and just putting the computer on mute or whatever). I would however question whether the cost / reward of doing that would ultimately worth it. The site isn’t offering formal qualifications, attendance isn’t graded at the end – it’s merely a way for graduates to engage with learning and for others to get a general picture of you and what you’re interested in. You could fake attend 100 lectures on business through the platform but if a prospective collaborator or employer asked you questions about your involvement it would be quickly apparent whether or not you were actually engaged in that learning.

3. Target audience

Initial thoughts – Stuart is right in that there are a number of various schemes established to help graduates within the creative industries, many more than exist for other specific subject areas it seems. I suppose this can perhaps be attributed to the overall poor performance of these industries in terms of skilled graduate employment. Creative industries have struggled to translate qualifications into employment outcomes for a long time and thus could be said to have a head start on other subject areas in terms of additional community / institutional support.

Taken from HESA 2020 report on graduate outcomes –

Today however, thanks to the year-on-year increase in university attendance there are a huge number of students that are graduating with fairly specialised degrees that don’t benefit from the same level of active graduate support that the creative industries are known for. This is partly why I don’t believe that narrowing my project’s focus to one subject area would be the best route forward. Desired employment / opportunity outcomes for graduates have stagnated for several years now and my aim is to support all graduates that have been sold the university premise but that haven’t been able to reap the reward that they were sold through participation in that system.

One particular line of Stuart’s feedback doesn’t sit well with me however, it has to be said. More than once he has now repeated the assertion that ‘graduates are in a privileged position because they can afford to come to university’.

I really dislike this take, it’s reductive and fails to account for the huge amount of variance within the graduate population. Whilst it’s certainly true that university attendance has traditionally had strong links with the middle classes & that recent changes to tuition fees has driven some potential undergraduates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds away, there remains a healthy proportion of students that do not have the kind of positional privilege that Stuart presupposes. Another thing to consider is that many of the graduates that I’d currently be looking to help would have studied before the tuition fee changes came about in 2012. Back then the comprehensive tuition and maintenance loans that were available allowed many working class individuals such as myself to partake in Higher Education despite my lack of ability to ‘afford’ to do so. (I’ll literally never pay back that loan, I don’t even earn enough to pay anything towards it right now).

What I think we miss if we assume all students to be in a financially privileged position is the fact that what we’re actually talking about is 50% of the total (eligible) young adult population. Are 50% of UK households in a privileged position? You could certainly argue that they are from a relativist perspective but why you would bother? We don’t discount 50% of a population because of their relative privilege when talking about other concerns like access to housing or health care so why would we when it comes to education? We’re not talking about ‘the 1%’ here.

Even if a family is able to pay in full for their child to attend HE, what does that meaningfully say about that family’s situation? If we use the same relativist framework as above, what positional advantage does this student then have over any of the other individuals in that 50% demographic that are able to ‘afford’ to attend university? We’re talking about such a huge segment of the young adult population that regardless of any supposed financial privilege there are still ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the graduate jobs market. There are still young people that need support to succeed and to develop into the more well-rounded individuals that employers are looking for. We can’t forget that we’re talking about young adults here, many of whom choose to attend university simply because they have been funneled that way through every aspect of their learning journey:

A handful of opinions and perspectives around this issue pulled from a post uploaded by The Times news organisation on Facebook.

This is something that is explored in more depth in Tomlinson’s study:

4 excerpts from Tomlinson, M., 2008. ‘The degree is not enough’: students’ perceptions of the role of higher education credentials for graduate work and employability. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(1), pp.49-61.

4. Research

Initial thoughts – I agree with Stuart’s assertion that I need to continue to do more research. I have begun to engage in a broader body of research over the past few days but this is something that I need to continue with. I have done a lot of research over the past few weeks but the problem is that my initial research direction hasn’t wound up becoming directly relevant to the way that my project has evolved.

I initially spent a lot of time looking at teaching methodologies and at ways of teaching interdisciplinarity but the focus of my project has shifted somewhat since then. In a broad sense I am still interested in developing a platform that supports and encourages interdisciplinarity, the difference now however is that I’m not necessarily looking at how I can directly teach those skills to graduates.

I also think that the sentence about graduates working in entry level service industry jobs needs to be removed or altered. Stuart has picked up on it more than once in his feedback & I’ve not been able to back it up with research. Unless it’s something that I can meaningfully research myself somehow I might have to leave it out or change it as at the moment it’s purely colloquial & based on my own perceptions and experiences which are unlikely to be fully reflective of wider statistics.

As part of the research I’ve done over the past few days I have begun to dig out a lot of statistics though to back up my various assertions. I’ve been looking at the government’s website as well as HESA’s stats and much of what I’ve found broadly correlates to what I’ve been saying which is good. There are plenty of figures out there to draw on and I plan to do so in my literature review. My next steps will be to create a post looking at the current competition out there on the market to try and better understand what my USPs actually are and to quantify how my proposal is unique.


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