The career service is dead, long live the career service? The work of the university career practitioner in an era of graduate employability

I’ve always been interested in career services. Those of us who have enough life mileage 😉 may have visited a career service in high school or university to do a range of aptitude tests, and be matched with an ideal career (mine was ‘lawyer’ – not sure what this says about me??). Others will have visited the career service to talk with a counsellor about changing courses, or how to find a job after they graduate.

The work of the university career practitioner has become increasingly complicated and demanding over the last few years. Not only have careers themselves become more complex and mutable, but the career service’s client base and range of activity has become far more diverse. For instance, I’ve noticed that it is now very common for career staff to be engaged in a massive laundry list of activities at the university, covering: curriculum and learning resource design and teaching; industry brokerage and partner relationship development; staff professional learning; institutional marketing and promotions; and creation of institutional policy and strategy, in addition to ‘traditional’ career counselling activities. Another disruptor is digital technology and social media. The use of digital tools means that the reach of the career service can be far greater than before, but their use is also associated with a range of interesting challenges.

The structural positioning and overall focus of many career services has changed as well. With the rise of the graduate employability agenda and a sector-wide focus on preparing learners for careers (or at least initial career outcomes) (Jackson & Bridgstock, 2018), some career services are suddenly finding themselves in the institutional spotlight, taking on significant responsibility for the university’s approach in this area. Others are capitalising upon burgeoning leadership interest in work integrated learning and employability skills to foreground the possibilities offered by an integrated institutional approach to career development learning. However, in other universities career services continue ‘out in the cold’ as “stand-alone entities, often organisationally aligned with student support services or marketing departments” (McKenzie & Howell, 2005), and are not (yet?) part of university-level conversations about learning and teaching.

University career services: No longer out in the cold?
University career services: No longer out in the cold?

In my keynote address at the Career Development Association of Australasia conference coming up in Hobart in May, I’m going to explore how career services and individual practitioners are responding to the disruptive changes to career development practice I’ve outlined above. I’ll talk about how they’re surmounting challenges, and reinventing themselves and their work to continue to best support the career development of learners.

I’ll share some findings of my Graduate Careers Australia-funded research project with Alan McAlpine and Michelle Grant-Iramu from QUT into the ‘future capability’ of the career service (actually, from a certain perspective one might also think of it as the career adaptability of the careers service!) Through nearly 40 interviews with career service managers, practitioners, institutional leadership, and academic staff across a total of nine universities in Australia, the UK and Canada 2017-2018, this research explored:
– the impact of disruptive influences within and outside the institution on career services and the work of career practitioners
– the big challenges that career services are facing in the current era of ‘career service ultra-super-hyperactivity’ (see also Dey & Real, 2009)
– how career services are transforming themselves in response to, and in anticipation of, ongoing changes
– the different organisational strategies that they using to influence the direction of the university in exciting ways,
– the ways that practitioners are working to integrate career development learning across the institution
– how career services managers and university leaders perceive the future of the career service – what’s coming next, and how can they prepare?

I invite you to join me in discussion on these topics at the conference. I am very aware that delegates will have relevant lived experience in their own contexts and practices, and I’m keen to take the opportunity to learn from you, as well as sharing what I have discovered so far. If the technology is amenable, I’ll lead a structured conversation about your experiences of the disruptors, the approaches you are taking to navigating these, and the ways that we can work together to assure the future capability of career development practice in educational institutions.

Dey, F., & Real, M. (2010). Adaptation of Casella’s Model: Emerging Trends in Career Services. College Student Educators International.

Jackson, D., & Bridgstock, R. (2018). Evidencing student success in the contemporary world-of-work: Renewing our thinking. Higher Education Research and Development. (In Press)

McKenzie, M., & Howell, J. (2005). A snapshot of Australian university career services. Australian Journal of Career Development, 14(2), 6-14.


Are our universities ‘too fat’?

I’m in Canberra. I’ve been attending the 2018 Universities Australia conference*, and I’m writing this from a corner in ANU’s ageing Art & Music library (I love the smell of it – oh the nostalgia! It reminds me of my undergrad days at UQ, when I would spend solid days in places like this. At the time I didnt realise the luxury of it). Alas, today my usual spot in the Chifley library is not available, because it’s being knocked down to make way for a schmick new student hub.

ANU's new student hub sign

Australian universities are in an interesting spot right now. Everyone’s committed to expensive infrastructure projects, and some are going into significant debt to do it. In my current city of Adelaide, we have a new University of Adelaide building for health and medical sciences going up right next to a UniSA cancer research institute on North Terrace. The rumour that UniSA added a spire to the top of its building to make it slightly taller than the Adelaide one hasn’t been confirmed beyond doubt, but there’s definitely some competition going on.

Many of these infrastructure projects are aimed at attracting students and industry partners, and bringing our activities into the 21st century. All of them started earlier than any concrete promises of government funding ‘reforms’ or MYEFO**. At that stage, we were all chasing increased student demand, and there was a sense that we could keep expanding forever – although actually after a big increase when the demand driven system was introduced, enrollment growth stabilised at just below population growth by 2016-17. Last year in my committee-plenteous middle management university job, I would field at least two new course proposals per month that made claims*** about being able to find amazing student load from entirely new sources.

Now we’ve put the anchors on. In the last two months the buildings have still been going up, but the Commonwealth $ will be the same, at least under the Coalition goverment, and later will be linked to ‘performance’ in various ways – most probably QILT indicators of student satisfaction, student retention, full-time grad employment and so on. It’s no surprise that now universities are variously looking for more money from international student load (FPOS), and domestic full fee paying students (micro-credentials for executive education, anyone?), both of which are risky moves. They are also looking seriously at belt-tightening, rationalisation and efficiencies, which is what the minister has been talking about for a while now.

So here’s a question: Are universities indeed ‘too fat’?
Universities all report their top level financial results to DET. Most post a surplus of between 2% and 6% (not so much regionals and dual-sector unis, many of which are definitely struggling), but according to UA, the average surplus has been declining over the last few years. These surpluses aren’t about profit, because universities are not-for-profit entities. The surpluses are instead what the university has on hand at the end of the year, including money from things like research and capital grants for which spending is already committed for the next year. The surplus figures are therefore not a great indicator of how much belt-tightening universities can stand, or might need.

So how efficient are universities in doing what they do? Is there more room for efficiency? By ‘efficiency’, I mean obtaining maximum value with minimum wasted effort and expense. This is a hard one, and one that VCs differ on somewhat (most recently, Margaret says yes we can be more efficient, at least with investment in infrastructure and technology, Glyn says no – specifically in terms of academic to professional staff ratios, and Jane also says no – in terms of the salaries and superannuation that academic staff receive).

To tell you the truth, the whole conversation makes me uncomfortable. The reason is that in pursuing university efficiency, we risk ending up negatively impacting our #1 stakeholders – our students. We risk ending up with very large face-to-face class sizes; courses ‘put online’ with not enough consideration of good pedagogy; ill-prepared, harried teachers; poor assessment feedback; and not enough support for students who need help, amongst other things. I am not saying that we shouldn’t pursue efficiency. I just think that we need to do it carefully, and using blunt indicators such as surpluses and staff ratios is highly problematic.

Here’s one challenging issue we could start with: Like many others, I have noticed that universities are afflicted by the ‘red tape plague’ that affects many large organisations these days. We’re busier than ever, with many academics working more than 60 hours per week, and this makes staff on the ground very angry when the Government suggests we need to tighten our belts. As an academic, I now spend far more time than ever before filling in forms, sitting in committees, and administering things… or clarifying confusion and roadblocks about forms, committees, systems, and administration. This is partly driven by reporting, KPIs and overregulation (apparently universities have the most reporting requirements of any Government funded sector), it’s partly that our systems and processes are becoming more and more complicated and sometimes don’t work together very well, and it’s partly the risk management culture. Academics grumble about not having enough professional staff to support them with all the red tape, but I dont think this is really the issue. Seriously: how do we reduce the administrivia in university life, and focus on core business?



*I might post about the contents of this later on, if I have time. It was very focussed on workforce changes because of automation, which disappointed me – it was a bit narrow and superficial, with some exceptions.

**MYEFO – ‘mid year economic forecast’, a euphemism for the recapping of funding for Commonwealth supported student places that happpened at the end of 2017, representing an end to the demand driven funding system.

***not always wonderfully substantiated, admittedly