Just the job
Professor Graham Virgo, the University of Cambridge’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, argues that Cambridge graduates are well prepared for a changing employment market
“Young people shouldn’t jump to decisions,” says Professor Graham Virgo, Cambridge University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education. Rather, he says, it’s important to take time at university to explore a range of career options.
“Employability” has become a buzzword in recent years, as universities – from former polytechnics to venerable redbricks – vie to convince students of the value of a degree. The double whammy of recession in 2009 and massively increased tuition fees from 2010 onwards prompted young people to question the currency of higher education in the job market. Institutions have been working closely with employers ever since to ensure that they’re producing work-ready graduates.
Part of Virgo’s role is to maximise students’ chances of employment – and he says that it’s the university experience, as much as the letters after their name, that makes them desirable candidates. “Enjoy Cambridge for Cambridge,” he says, “and take advantage of all the opportunities it provides, having an open mind throughout.”
This is sound advice even when studying a course that seems to have a logical destination. “Medical students don’t have to be doctors,” says Virgo, “and law students don’t have to be lawyers.” This is especially true at Cambridge, he says, where such programmes have an academic rather than a vocational focus. “What I really hope we do at Cambridge is help people see all sorts of different things on the horizon they may never have thought of before.”
First and foremost in this is a quality education. “We have very good statistics for students getting into jobs,” he says, “and I think that’s because we are competitive, so we get excellent students coming in with a great deal of potential. We then focus on ensuring the educational provision is the best we can possibly produce. Employers respect that and place high regard on what we do.”
In fact, the national Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey indicates that, six months after graduating, 97 per cent of Cambridge graduates were engaged, with 58 per cent in employment, 34 per cent in further study and 5 per cent taking a year out. This marks a 3 per cent graduate unemployment rate, compared to a 7.3 per cent national average.
Furthermore, according to the QS World University Rankings, Cambridge has the second best reputation with employers in the world.
Jolly good fellows
University support services further bolster academic excellence. “Providing support is crucial,” says Virgo. “We try to ensure there’s as much information out there as possible.” The collegiate system also helps. “Every student is linked to a college with particular Fellows who look after them,” he says. “They have one-on-one conversations where advice can be given. I think, here at Cambridge, we’re very good at getting to know our students and helping them work out what they want to consider as a future career.” Another aspect is in-built flexibility. “One of the advantages of Cambridge,” adds Virgo, “is that you can change course once you’re here.”
Added to this, the Careers Service has very close contacts with employers, including its network of over 1,200 alumni. “A lot of firms come to Cambridge, and the Careers Service puts students in touch with them and provides advice,” says Virgo. “Students can also have a very detailed interview with a careers adviser, looking at CVs, helping with writing applications, but also discussing the really big things, like what jobs may be available to them both outside academia and within.”
There are also the vacancy lists, which advertise more than 7,000 graduate-level opportunities and internships every year. Over 21,000 Cambridge students and alumni use this free Careers Service on an annual basis, including 90 per cent of final-year students.
LEARNING TO WORK
Some courses get involved too, with employability woven in. “For example, engineering programmes have very close research links with engineering industries, and very strong encouragement to get work experience,” says Virgo. “That’s also true of quite a few of the science areas.”
However, universities must also maximise employability for students on non-vocational programmes – and, across all faculties, Cambridge offers more than 1,500 internships and holiday work placements to students annually.
Then there are the extracurricular opportunities. “If someone who’s reading English wants to go into the film industry or theatre, there are all sorts of opportunities,” says Virgo. “By engaging with extracurricular activities, students can get real hands-on experience – and will come into contact with people who may give them career insights. Professional actors who have been at Cambridge might come in to give advice and support, so it’s not always done through the course.” Involvement in some of Cambridge University’s 780 student clubs and societies can thereby help students develop not only career-related skills and contacts, but also important “transferable skills”, such as team-working, entrepreneurship and commercial awareness.
A university experience, says Virgo, is about developing the whole person. “I want to make sure that the students who graduate from Cambridge are well equipped for their future lives,” he says. “That means picking up skills that are relevant for future jobs, but also developing themselves as people.
“Personally, studying at Cambridge gave me confidence,” he concludes. “For all new students, it’s a pretty pressurised experience. But, when you are meeting new people, engaging with your fellow students and academics, you realise your potential and you start achieving it. That helps you be ambitious and take risks. And that, coupled with being very well taught and keeping your options open, is an incredibly important thing to take to the world of work.”